The art of aging: Barentsburg turns old bureacractic center into bustling art museum that salutes its history and future

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Turning an aging center of bureaucracy into a future-minded memorial of culture and history was an intricate work of art in itself. And like the ever-changing collections, the dreams of those eyeing the future are an evolving process – which, alas, still has to cope with the realities of bureaucracy.

This article was written by staff writer Marion Prudhon. Like it? Donate!

A new museum in Barentsburg is open after workers spent a year-and-a-half renovating and refurbishing the old consulate building. The Russian settlement has been overhauling many of its buildings during the past several years as officials eye a future based more on tourism than mining, but the museum presented special challenges as workers strived to make the museum “both cosy and modern,” while rebuilding some old-style features such as the wooden floor, said Timofey Rogozhin, head of the Tourism Arctic Center, during the museum’s official opening.

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Portraits of Pyraminden residents painted by Andrej Strakhov are displayed Barentsburg’s art museum.

Modernization included items such as a new heating system and fiber optic communications, while decorative touches in addition to preserving the floor included forged handrails from Moscow and lighting from Germany.

“It must be remembered that we are on an island at Arctic latitudes and this imposes significant complications on the fulfillment of the already difficult tasks,” Rogozhin wrote in a post on the center’s Facebook page.

An audience comprised almost entirely of local residents attended Rogozhin’s speech during the museum’s opening. But he emphasized the facility was as much for them as the visitors officials hope it attracts.

“The museum is intended not only for tourists, but also for us and for you who live here because except for a constant Pomor exhibition in the museum there will be here different temporary exhibitions,” he said.

The museum is open upon request between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Four exhibitions – three temporary as well as the permanent Pomor collection – were unveiled at the opening:

• “Faces of Pyramiden,” featuring the artwork of Andrej Strakhov (1925-1990), a member of the Soviet Union of Artists. He was sent to Svalbard for a long visit to paint portraits of people working in the settlement. Strakhov’s style is very much in line with the “Socialist Realism,” the only officially recognized style in Soviet period.

• A private collection of miscellaneous polar bears generously shared by Valentina Sovkina, a Sami woman captivated by the marine mammal.

• “Legends Of Polar Lights,” featuring watercolors by Anna Mikhaylova, which is scheduled to remain on display until Aug. 22.

• A history of Pomor culture and occupation of Svalbard.  The hunters and fishers from northern Russia were active in Svalbard for centuries, and one of the lingering questions is if they arrived before the official discovery of the archipelago by Willem Barentz in 1596.

Museum Director Olga Kostrova paid tribute to the area’s ancestors by wearing a traditional Pomor dress during the opening and to the newest art from Mikhaylova, the lone featured artist at the event.

“I’ve know her for a long time, four years, and I was watching how her art was changing and how her style grew,” Kostrova said. “She has found it and I know she has a lot of admirers, she is very popular.”

Mikhaylova said her approach was to “represent these lights with all this darkness around.” She started with watercolors and tried to add different techniques, not all of them satisfying. During her first stay in Barentsburg in the fall of 2015 she finally found inspiration and went back to an all-watercolors.

“It may not be very realistic, but this is meant to illustrate legends, so it has to be a bit fantastic,” she said.

“She really conveys in the picture, the space that she sees,” said Zinaida Popova, a Barentsburg resident for the past 15 years who participated in a master class taught by Mikhaylova this spring. “I like it.”

Rogozhin said he’d also like to further expand cultural and tourism offerings in other buildings if funding for what would be a costly effort becomes available.

‘We now feel already that this building will not be enough for us in the long term,” he said.