A trip to Siberia can be an adventure: vast and wild landscapes, the Cyrillic alphabet and a challenging public transport – though the Trans-Siberian railway seems to transcend it all: the train is the perfect means to experience the fascinating country in a (quite) comfortable way under the caring eye of your Provodnica. What sometimes goes overlooked when travelling this part of the world are the manifold museums and cultural institutions Siberia has to offer.
The museums in Siberia range from unique privately run Wunderkammern to historic public institutions with unique collections. One drawback most of them have in common: visitors are left on their own experiencing the exhibitions and objects. Cultural mediation is not yet a big topic. Educational programs like guided tours are rarely offered and English texts and labels are very minimalistic. The (Russian speaking) staff tries very hard though to help visitors around and make them feel at home.
Novosibirsk is the largest municipal entity in the Russian Federation with the third largest population count of all Russian cities (after Moscow and St. Petersburg). With a population of 1,612,833 (2018) it is the most populous city in Asian Russia. The growth of Novosibirsk was fuelled in the 19th century by the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway and the Novosibirsk Rail Bridge (which still stands today). Today the city is one of the cultural hotspots in Russia. However, tourists don’t seem to visit Novosibirsk often. One feels quite unique strolling the green city and sipping a tasty cappuccino in one of the many coffeehouses.
The USSR Museum
Very unique is the USSR museum. It is located in a traditional wooden house dating from 1917 and shows a huge collection of items from the USSR. Inside visitors wander in a giant Wunderkammer. Millions of objects are accurately assembled according to themes: technical equipment, kitchen & dining, office, clothing etc. Labels don’t exist, wall texts neither. One can just delve in and explore: hands-on and dressing up is encouraged. The friendly staff shows people around. Though it felt weird when the (assumed) owner almost forced us to put on an army coat and pose with a bottle of vodka.
The Novosibirsk State Museum of Local History and Nature
The Novosibirsk State Museum of Local History and Nature is a historic museum with a huge collection and several exhibitions on show. The permanent displays give an overview of the Siberian nature and history (though history stops in the 1940s – it seems nobody dared to deal with the following decades). Labels are in English and a nice app for the permanent exhibitions can be downloaded (WIFI is offered). The 2-dimensionsial maps of the museum are even offered in sign language, but accessibly for the visually impaired starts and stops there.
Novosibirsk further houses the Novosibirsk Museum of the Railway Technology, the State Art Museum, the World Funeral Culture Museum, the N. Roerich’s Museum, a Children and Youth Centre Planetarium and many more. Definitely too much for a 2-day-layover.
Historic Irkutsk is the de facto capital of Eastern Siberia and by far the most popular stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway between Moscow and all points east. Lake Baikal is a mere 70 km away.
Pedestrian Guided Tour
A great way to discover the city is the Pedestrian guided tour green line. It is very convenient: just follow the green line through the city centre and download the audio files at each stop via QR code from Soundcloud. The downside: the city offers no free WiFi, so the tour is not accessible to most tourists.
Angara Icebreaker Museum
Another highlight of the city is Angara Icebreaker museum. The Angara is the only vessel of the first icebreaking-type vessels that is preserved in Russia. Its length is 60 m, its width is 10.5 m and its weight is 1400 tons.
The Angara, together with the larger icebreaker Baikal, served as a ferry for the lake Baikal before the Circum-Baikal Railway has been implemented. Today visitors can explore the ship and its cabins and engineering rooms. Climbing down into the ship’s belly is a steep an dark experience.
Very charming is the Taltsy Museum outside the city. The open-air museum shows traditional wooden houses from different regions of Siberia. It offers good amenities and masses of tourists. In some ares we felt reminded of a Luna park. Additional downsides included missing English labelling and a small zoo inside the museum area.
Irkutsk further offers the Regional Historical and Memorial Museum of Decembrists, the Museum of Medicinal Herbs and Minerals or the Museum of History of Irkutsk.
Listvyanka a small village at the Lake Baikal. It is a hotspot for locals and tourists who want to spend a day at the shores of the lake.
A must see according to our tour guide is the Baikal Museum: a nice – but overrun – museum for the local flora and fauna. It offers different exhibitions, a „VR dive station“ and a science lab. The VR dive station turned out to be a submarine equipped with monitors to screen a 2D movie. That was quite a disappointment.
The lab instead was a positive surprise: visitors could observe stones, plants and microorganisms under a microscope. Scientists from the museum assisted and answered questions. Very nice!
The Baikal Museum also comprises an aquarium with animals from the lake. Two Baikal seals live in two very small and barren tanks. That’s a total no-go!
East of Lake Baikal is Ulan Ude – definitely one of Siberias coolest cities. It is the capital of the Buryat Republic, a federal subject of Russia. The Buryats are the biggest ethnic minority in Russia.
The Museum of History of Ulan Ude
The Museum of History of Ulan Ude is located in a wooden house in the pedestrian zone. It shows a vast collection of items from 1800s to the 1990s. English translations of introduction texts are available, but almost no labelling (neither engl. or russian). The objects are interesting, but without mediation the content is hard to understand. A touchscreen in the final room gives access to an information database about the city and the museum.
Buryatia History Museum
Ulan Ude’s Buryatia History Museum was founded in 1919. The museum shows costumes, weapons, tools and adornments of the Buryat people. One floor is dedicated to Buddhist art and artifacts. The museum has one of two original copies of the Atlas of Tibetan Medicine, a beautifully illustrated treatise of herbal and spiritual treatments for illnesses. Some exhibition rooms were exclusively unlocked for us. The museum ward opened the doors and turned the lights on upon our entry (and immediately turned everything off when we left).
Sampilov Art Museum
The Sampilov Art Museum in Ulan-Ude is found in an interesting building from the Soviet times. It features a very small (and disappointing) display of Russian art (only two rooms), a section for Buratian nature and a temporary exhibit.
Educational programs for tourists are still in its infancy in Siberia. Some museums already offer apps in multiple languages and english labels. Guided tours can be pre-booked. What all the museums that we visited have in common, is the overly friendly and helplful staff. The museum employees always tried to provide us as much information as possible and explain the artefacts. We always felt very welcome despite the language barrieres. In sum: museums in Siberia are full of unique treasures and interesting stories to discover.
- Angara Icebreaker Museum, Irkutsk
- Baikal Museum, Listvyanka
- Buryatia History Museum, Ulan Ude
- Ethnographic Museum Ulan Ude
- Green line Pedestrian Tour, Irkutsk
- Museum of History of Irkutsk
- Museum of Medicinal Herbs and Minerals, Irkutsk
- N. Roerich’s Museum, Novosibirks
- Nature Museum of Buratia, Ulan Ude
- Novosibirsk Museum of the Railway Technology
- Novosibirsk State Museum of Local History and Nature
- Regional Historical and Memorial Museum of Decembrists, Irkutsk
- Sampilov Art Museum, Ulan-Ude
- Taltsy Museum, Irkutsk
- USSR museum, Novosibirsk
- World Funeral Culture Museum, Novosibirsk