5 January 2015

Siberia – an exhibition at the Manchester Museum, 4 October 2014 to 1 March 2015

This colourful and informative exhibition is stunning in its breadth, both for the size of the 
Siberian region, and the number of topics it opens up. Visitors are welcomed by a Siberian brown bear, images of the frozen north and then a slideshow of 35 large size Siberian people portraits. This was a deliberate choice to draw the public in by acknowledging the very stereotypes that the exhibition hopes to combat, such as, for instance, that Siberia is a waste, abandoned region completely covered with snow and frozen all year round. A huge wall map provides orientation in terms of natural zones (Tundra, Taiga and Steppe) and the various ethnic groups, contrasting with a Russian samovar, the symbol of Russian hospitality, and a landscape overprinted with Yermak the Conqueror, a 16th century Cossack folk hero famous for his part in the Russian expansion into the region.

The displays are organised in the same colour coded natural zones and showcase both the natural history and indigenous life styles of Siberia, and also investigate the real-politik of the fur and mammoth-ivory trades, raw material extraction, the topic of forced exile to labour camps, nature conservation issues and the beauty of Lake Baikal. The lead curator, Dmitri Logunov, has worked at the Manchester Museum for more than 13 years, and used to live and work in the Siberia city of Novosibirsk for almost 15 years. The exhibition would not have been possible without his deep regional knowledge and contacts. Contemporary photographs, which he was able to source at no cost, provide a vivid atmosphere and the range of exhibits is very striking. Star pieces include Khanty boots made of burbot fish skin, a malachite plinthed clock gifted by Prince Nikolai to Chatsworth House (before he became Tsar Nikolai I), portraits of camp prisoners by the Russian artist, Nadia Kisseleva, who now lives in Birmingham, and a huge mammoth tusk and mini mammoth model on loan from the Natural History Museum, London.

A note on the website says “Unfortunately due to unforeseen circumstances Masha the baby mammoth will not now be part of the exhibition”, a big disappointment to the exhibition team. However ‘Siberia’ provides a unique overview of an area of the world which we in the west still have much to learn about. 

Complimentary to the Manchester exhibition is a small temporary exhibition in the Court of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford displaying artefacts and photographs collected by anthropologist Marie Antoinette Czaplicka on her 1914 expedition to Siberia to study the reindeer-herding Evenki people. The small exhibition explores the expedition, the extraordinary hardships its members endured, and the Evenki people that were the focus of their research. Like the Manchester exhibition the Pitt Rivers display emphasises the vastness of the Siberian landscape and harshness of the weather but despite reinforcing this image of Siberia the display also stresses that the Siberian landscape was an inhabited one. Using historic photographs and quotes from Czaplicka's travelogue 'My Siberian Year' the exhibition offers insightful nuggets about the life of the nomadic Evenki.

Images of the Manchester exhibition courtesy of the author. 

Antonia Lovelace 
Curator of World Culture, Leeds Museums and Galleries. 

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