Viktor Boyarsky: I tried to make the museum feel like home for people involved with or just fascinated by the Arctic and Antarctica
Is the Arctic and Antarctic Museum geared toward the past or the future?
The museum’s exhibitions were set up more or less in the 1940s-1950s but we don’t view this as a drawback. On the contrary, it’s a plus, since those years were the golden age of Russian research in the Arctic. Even now, as we see government policy turn back to the North, we still have a long way to go to achieve the same presence in the Arctic we had back then. And our exhibitions capture the atmosphere of those memorable years.
We aren’t planning any revolutionary changes in the exhibitions, though we do upgrade them meticulously, substituting out the videos and photographs. This somewhat old-fashioned way of presenting exhibitions may not be much to the liking of the younger “internet” generation who have been spoiled by visual effects.
But this place probably isn’t for them. First, even our interiors give the place a vintage feel. Second, the 1940-1950s was when the general public discovered the Arctic, when “The Two Captains” was published. It was a time of romantic sentiment about the Arctic. Older people come here and say, “When we enter the museum it’s like being transported back to those years.” The museum is committed to preserving that atmosphere.
How many items are on display in the museum now?
63,000. We did a complete count — not based on documents but physically checking each item. It took two years, 2010 through 2012.
We did it not for a report ordered from higher up, but in order to see what we really have, so that those who visit the museum don’t have to wonder the same question we faced: what does the museum have and where can it be found. This was a very important project, and we are pleased we did it
Is the museum’s collection growing?
Yes, definitely. We receive up to a thousand items a year.
Where do they come from?
We can only afford to purchase a small number of items, and only with funds from sponsors. Several models of historic airplanes have been purchased. The collections are enlarged mainly with donations from polar researchers’ relatives and wives. They come and bring government awards, documents, photographs. I myself once went on expeditions. The materials from those expeditions to the Novosibirsk Islands, among other places, also ended up at the museum and were added to the collection.
What in your museum strikes visitors most?
What I’ve been talking about — the special atmosphere. When you enter our museum, it immerses you: a rotating globe, stuffed wildlife, pictures of bird colonies we have revived using cries we recorded on our trip to Franz Joseph Land, displays where you can hear the animals “sing” in their different voices…
I was trying to make the museum not a lifeless collection of items but rather a home, primarily for those who lived and worked in the Arctic and Antarctica, their relatives, children, grandchildren, and all those who are excited by our planet’s poles. Since 1999 we have had annual meetings of polar researchers, veterans, ice-breaker captains. The museum also hosts the final stage of the literary and artistic competition “The North, the Land with No Borders.” We also have children’s programs. Despite the limited space in the museum, we arranged a special classroom for that. We offer subscriptions to classes on the Arctic. Schoolchildren can sign up for four courses where they watch films and learn about the Arctic nature, ice, aviation and boats. They win prizes for answering questions correctly. We also hold a New Year contest “The Right Way to Prepare for a Trip to the North Pole.” Children are presented with a variety of things and have to choose the most important items for a polar expedition. The competition can be fierce!
Does the Arctic and Antarctic Museum cooperate with similar museums in other countries?
Yes, we do exchange exhibitions. The last notable project we had was with the Finnish John Nurminen Foundation.
Arranging such exhibitions nowadays has become incredibly difficult— we have to obtain a lot of approvals at all different levels. Besides, museums normally display the best and the most valuable items in their permanent exhibitions. At our museum, the permanent exhibitions are Ivan Papanin’s tent, a Chelyuskin expedition plane, and a wooden collapsible house from the North Pole 3 expedition. When we organize an exhibition abroad, we have to temporarily remove those items from the museum, which are never eager to do.
But we do work with friends, mostly European, in the Fram Museum, Tromsø, and the Arctic Centre in Rovaniemi.
Your museum unites the two poles, North and South. Which of them is closer to your heart?
Right, this is the museum’s defining feature. It became the Museum of the Arctic and Antarctica in 1958 after we began operating in Antarctica.
I like the North Pole better. I’ve been there more times. In addition to spending a winter there and participating in seasonal expeditions, I have been actively involved in guiding skiing tours to the North Pole in the past few years. That said, Antarctica was basically the biggest expedition of my life, the Transantarctic international expedition of an international crew in which I represented the Soviet Union, crossing Antarctica on skis and dog sleds on the longest route — over 6,500 kilometers.
But really, the Arctic and Antarctica are two totally different places, and each is beautiful in its own way.
I first came to the North Pole in 1978 to work at the North Pole 23 drifting station. Back then I was doing research, measuring the thickness of ice and snow using radar. The station drifted 180 kilometers off the North Pole, and we decided that we just had to fly there. The Antonov 2 airplane can land anywhere, and so we landed it right on the North Pole. I’ll never forget it.
The North Pole doesn’t stand out in anyway. It looks no different than the thousands of points surrounding it, the same ice everywhere. You have to meditate on the fact that you are standing on the spot where the concept of time is absent.
How often do to you work in the field?
I used to go to the Arctic four or five times a year. Until 2011, I worked on drift ice every year. I’ve been to the North Pole about 60 times, and then only on skis or on an icebreaker. But I recently stopped working in the field for a number of reasons, though I still visit the Barneo ice base.
You became the museum’s director in 1998. What have you accomplished since then?
We have installed a modern climate control system in the storage sections, as well as fire and security alarms, which is very important in a museum. It didn’t have anything like that before. We have also built a new cloakroom, installed new bathroom equipment, because the old one looked like part of an exhibit, and replaced the old and dangerous wiring and sewage and water supply systems.
But our main achievement is that we have systematized the archives. Until we did that, the attitude toward our archives lacked respect because the museum wasn’t seen as part of the national museum system.
The biggest achievement is that the museum exists at all. Besides my duties as museum director, for the past 20 years I was also fighting to ward off the attempts to take over the museum building.
Many people who haven’t been in this museum think about it as a warehouse filled with junk. But this is not so. We have several composite pictures made in 1940, which would fall apart if moved. And really, moving the museum to another building would be worse than a fire.
We’ve been offered several choices. The worst thing is that the buildings we were offered looked good on paper, but they didn’t suit the museum’s purpose at all. They are either too small, or there is the problem of transport accessibility, or something else. I believe that the museum must be left on Marat Street. Yes, we need a new building, but not to move the museum, but for a new exposition.
What are the development prospects of the Arctic and Antarctic Museum?
Life goes on, and people are becoming interested in the Arctic again. Our building is too small for development, but we’ll never discard anything to create room for development. Continuity is an irreplaceable part of our exhibition.
An idea was suggested in 2012 to add the scrapped Arktika icebreaker, which was to be utilized, to the museum.
That legendary icebreaker was built in the Soviet Union and was an engineering and technological pinnacle. It was like a spacecraft — it was the first to reach the North Pole. Those who’ve never been on such an icebreaker haven’t lived a complete life.
I took part in many expeditions on icebreakers, and every time I felt proud of my country, because no other country has such nuclear-powered icebreakers. The tourists we take to the North Pole gasp: “Yes, Russia can do anything!” It would be a shame if such a famous icebreaker as the Arktika followed in the wake of the Yermak, which was scrapped and cut up after 65 years of service and its many heroic feats.
This is why we and our colleagues have decided to save the Arktika and to berth it at Kronstadt.
Because there aren’t many sites in St. Petersburg where such a huge vessel can berth. Kronstadt is a developing area with a good transport connection to St. Petersburg over a dam, and it has a suitable site for the icebreaker.
Under a concept developed by well-known architect Valentin Gavrilov, an old dock in the Kronstadt ship repair plant is to be turned into a museum. The plant has expressed interest in this idea, and the Arctic and Antarctic Museum has been working to implement it. These are our plans, and this is our future.
We are looking for sponsors, because creating a national museum, culture, research and education center in Kronstadt, which would include an icebreaker, will cost a great deal. To convince people to help us, we need to show them a concept design, but making a good design takes money too. But I think it’s worth it.
You’ve written several books. Where do you find the time to write?
I wrote my books while traveling. I started a diary during my first expedition in Greenland. I thought I’d use it to write a book later. It was in 1988, when I was working at the Arctic Institute. I asked for a leave of absence and sat down to write a book. I was using a typewriter, but it was taking too long and was too boring, and I abandoned it.
During an Antarctic expedition in 1989, I taped my diary because pencils easily break in freezing temperatures, and ballpoint pens are completely useless. Besides, you don’t even want to think about a book after walking on skis for 10 hours. You have to force yourself to write a page, and that’s it. But a dictaphone is quite another matter. You simply lie in your sleeping bag and talk about what happened during the day. Ten minutes of speaking is very good. And besides, I could talk without restraint because no one there knew Russian.
I brought home 24 90-minute cassette tapes and used a four-month leave of absence to write my first book. It’s called “Seven Months of Infinity.” But that’s where my luck ended: I had to pay for the printing costs.
Next I reviewed and published a book about the 1988 expedition, “The Greenland Meridian.” But I wanted to write a trilogy about the trans-Antarctic region. This is why I taped my impressions during the 1995 expedition across the Arctic Ocean. After it ended, I started working to preserve the museum and I keep doing it to this day, and so had no time to write down what I taped. I hoped to be able to use voice recognition software for this. The tapes have been gathering dust for 10 years. Somebody suggested that I give them to a typist, which I did, and soon I started editing the text. Soon I had a new book, “The Creation of Ellesmere Island.”
I also published verses in between. Writing verses is easy: you do it while walking on skis. The majority of them are devoted to my friends who passed away. I wanted to keep the memory about them alive in my verses.