The Very Beginning

Children’s department of the State museum of the history of religion


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In 2007, I was commissioned to develop a concept for the permanent children’s exhibit at the State museum of the History of Religion. My idea was to build the exhibit around the religious beliefs from different archaic cultures. I decided not to deal with the big modern religions and instead to play with the themes common for various ancient cultures, concentrating on the genesis of the universe (a macrocosm), and on the semantics of an ancient home (a microcosm). The exhibit as a whole was conceived as a large interactive installation.

The first room is set up as a traditional simple round-shaped archaic dwelling, with a burning fire-place in the middle and the starry sky visible through a hole in the ceiling. Images of ancestors’ spirits, different objects from homes of various ancient cultures create a magic atmosphere in this room. However, the space can be easily transformed into a workshop, where children can engage in creative hands-on work on the theme.

The second room is much bigger and is dedicated to the universe and ancient peoples’ perceptions about it. Myths and legends usually tell about three levels of the world: the upper , the middle and the underworld. The common axis connecting the three worlds is the Great Tree, the Tree of Life, the Tree of good and evil, the stairs to the sky. The tree used in this part of the exhibit is real, its bark is rough, and it has volume. Modern multimedia projectors make it look as though the tree starts to blossom, mythological creatures appear from the underworld and magical birds – inhabitants of the upper world – settle down onto the branches. The journey into ancient cultures may begin.

Other installations in this room resemble ancient ruins, where treasures are hidden in the walls and in the ground. Replicas of ancient objects from shamanism and Buddhism, Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece are waiting to be discovered, taken out and investigated by children. The room is truly multifunctional: it suites well for different activities, from performing magical rituals to simply assembling a big puzzle.

My concept for this exhibit was approved in 2009, but shortly thereafter the administration of the museum has changed, and the new executives have made it impossible for me and my partners to carry out or to supervise the project. The children’s exhibit “The Very Beginning” was opened to the public in February 2011, and I visited it with mixed feelings. Some important parts of the original concept have been misunderstood or just carried out badly. I very much hope that the new administration of the museum will consider my proposal to supervise the installation’s careful review, and restructuring.

Despite changes to the original design, in 2011, “The Very Beginning” was nominated one of the two best museum projects for children in Russia.

© Alexander Reichstein