Extended interview. Director of the Biological Museum dwells on shocking exhibits and multimedia technology

Extended interview. Director of the Biological Museum dwells on shocking exhibits and multimedia technology
Director of the Timiryazev State Biological Museum Maria Rakhcheeva tells about changes in the permanent exhibition to occur in the near future, what kind of gifts the Museum holdings receive from visitors and the way the Museum continues the legacy of its founder Boris Zavadovsky, an animal physiology researcher and a science promoter.

The history of the Timiryazev Biological Museum, located at the estate of Pyotr Shchukin, a collector and philanthropist of the 19th century, started in 1922. That was the time his first Director Boris Zavadovsky decided that it would be an active museum about both the structure of living beings, plants and mushrooms, and the activities of biologists and contemporary scientific achievements. Today, almost a hundred years later, the Museum adheres to the same principles.

Read about the past and the future of one of the major natural science museums in Moscow in mos.ru and Mosgortur Agency collaborative article. The Museum’s Director Maria Rakhcheeva tells about its activities in the 21st century.

Maria Rakhcheeva, Director of Timiryazev Biological  Museum

“You hold a degree in ornithology. Does work in the Museum allow you to continue scientific activity?”

“I have been working in the Museum since 2010. First I worked as a researcher at the Department of Zoology, further as Head of the Department of Information, later I became Deputy Director for development and since 2017 I have been working as a Director. I was educated at the Moscow State Pedagogical University, then I entered the postgraduate course at the Department of Vertebrate Zoology. My Ph.D. thesis speciality is Ecology, my thesis was devoted to migration strategies of birds.

I spent a lot of time at biological stations, where I supervised students and taught young naturalists. During the collection of material for my thesis, I ringed about 3,000 long-tailed tits. Unfortunately, I don't have time for my scientific activity at present. But sometimes I return to ornithology. A few years ago I came up with a workshop on bird ringing dedicated to the International Bird Day. Before work, I went to the park, caught two birds, brought them to the Museum, ringed them according to rules and released. The visitors were delighted. Last year I conducted this workshop once again, already being a Director. And this year, we want to celebrate the International Bird Day on 31 March once again.”

“How do you catch birds?”

“Bird Ringing Centres use a special net made of extra fine threads to avoid harming birds. Ornithologists determine birds' sex, species, age, watch how the moulting proceeds, how much fat a bird has gained. After that they put a ring on a bird's leg and release it into the wild.

This procedure is necessary to study different aspects of birds life, first of all migration processes. One bird was ringed in Chuvashia in the summer, and in the autumn it was caught nearby Riga. It had made rather a long flight.

In general terms, without diving into scientific matters, it allows to observe the diversity of birds living in a particular area, and to determine their difference.”

“What challenges does the Director of Biological Museum face?”

“Director is an all-embracing position. When they ask me about my achievements, my first thought is, "I do not interfere with my employees' work." One of the major tasks of mine is to create a comfortable atmosphere facilitating my team's interest in doing something new. Our main goal is to develop interaction with visitors and attract a new audience.

Three years ago, I became a mother and faced an utterly new world. I  communicated with other young mothers and was horrified by the poor level of their knowledge in biology. Most people think about biology only in terms of school lessons, not science, though they need it at least to understand how their children grow. That revelation had served as a trigger, and I decided to make the Museum a place where people would enjoy filling the gaps in their education.

On 26 March, we opened the ‘Super Bacteria. Struggle for Life’ exhibition, dedicated to the emergence of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. As a biologist, I know: if you take antibiotics uncontrollably, they are of no use. But it turns out that many people take such drugs without consulting a doctor. You catch a cold and start taking antibiotics, just to be on the safe side. But then, should you suddenly have an ear infection or something more grave, the antibiotics won’t work. Serious bacterial infection may be fatal. I really hope that the exhibition will help to spread this information among as many people as possible.

In general, we want to continue moving in the direction set by the founder and the first Director of our Museum Boris Zavadovsky (1895-1951). He came up with a really great concept, that is to activate the Museum. Zavadovsky wanted visitors to have some notion about scientists' activity, the latest scientific discoveries and get involved in research.

Boris was not only promoting science, his own contribution to science had indeed been exemplary. He was an academician of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences, specialised in animal physiology, studied the activity of endocrine gland hormones, sex hormones, in particular.

We have some outcome of his scientific works in our holdings. For example, there is a stuffed hen that due to male sex hormones looks like a rooster. Now we know how hormones affect the body, but at the beginning of the last century it was a mystery.”

“The Museum's exhibition halls are being updated. Please tell us about your permanent exhibition and its expected changes.”

“It is a classic-style natural science exhibition, presented as a regular school biology course, it features ecology, botany, zoology and human physiology. There is a hall dedicated to evolutionary processes and anthropogenesis, as well as paleontological hall. A separate hall tells about physiology of plants, there is no other in Moscow, it is unique. Our permanent exhibition is very popular with Biology teachers, as the Museum organises classes. We are eager to support and develop this area.

There is also a ‘Transparent Science’ laboratory, it holds lessons where schoolchildren are free to use microscopes and make experiments. The laboratory also features a ‘Keep a Sharp Eye’ interactive room, dedicated to vision.

You will find a plenty of exotic plants in our greenhouse. It is not very big, but rich, it boasts about 300 species. My favourite part is a corner dedicated to carnivorous insects eating plants: sundews, nepenthes, Venus flytraps. Don't be scared, they are not monsters! For example, a sundew is about a business card's size. You may find it growing in the suburbs and even in Moscow.

There is a small area behind the greenhouse between the buildings that houses another amusing exhibition, named ‘Under the Open Sky’. It exhibits wild plants of Moscow and the Moscow region, as well as red-listed ones. We conduct tours here, starting from the Night at the Museum and until the end of August and early September.

Two areas of the display will be renovated. First, we will update all the halls taking into account the latest scientific discoveries - science is constantly developing, you know. I want more interaction between scientists and visitors, more questions asked. The world of today is overflowing with information, and our objective is to make sure that after visiting our Museum people know how to deal with it and ask the right questions. The second area is the development of digital content of the exhibition. It is required to illustrate many biological processes that can’t be just exhibited.

In the nearest future, we plan to update the mushroom exhibition in the hall. We had opened it as a temporary display, but it was so popular that we had to make it permanent. It features unique exhibits, for example exact full-size copies of edible and inedible mushrooms. There are visitors who come here every year before the start of the mushroom hunt to refresh their memories.”

“How do you feel about up-to-date technology? What technologies do you use in your Museum?”

“Biology is a science, which processes such as photosynthesis and cell division are difficult to illustrate without using modern technologies. But on the other hand, I don't want the Museum to be solely multimedia-based, because the true beauty of a museum is in its real exhibits. I am all for technology, but I understand that its use should be reasonable, so as not to spoil the impression of our exhibition, and it's the most difficult.

For example, our new mushroom exhibition will show the mycelium underground life with the use of multimedia. We have a young Russian artist working on sound and light installation for the hall. I believe it will be very beautiful.

We often collaborate with contemporary artists. Last year, Ilya Fedotov-Fedorov created Pink Book Collection No.2 by adding more than 100 specially designed objects to our permanent exhibition. The Pink Book is a kind of a fictional issue, it contains various strange creatures that are about to get into Red Book. Ilya (before he become an artist, he had studied genetics by the way) made images of such creatures. The main idea implied an appeal to give a thought about our fragile world. The exhibition was very interesting! During the tours, our visitors kept asking, "What's this? And what's that?'' It provided us an opportunity to talk a little bit about contemporary art.”

“How do you get your exhibits?”

“On an annual basis, the Museum personnel go on expeditions, engage in paleontological research, study raptors, worms, waders, medicinal plants. They bring some exhibits from expeditions, some are transferred from the Zoo under the agreement, many of them are made by our taxidermist. And sometimes people make us presents we are happy to accept, such as books, paintings related to nature, stuffed animals, shells, paleontological representatives - trilobites and ammonites. We have been presented with a velociraptor claw recently. Exhibits not included in the holdings for some reason replenish our interactive holdings we use in practical classes held at the Museum”

“What treasures do the Museum funds boast?”

“We have more than 90,000 items in our holdings: stuffed animals, biogroups, captivating herbarium, skeletons of invertebrates and vertebrates, a huge collection of insects and artworks. One of my favourite collections is jars with items 'preserved in alcohol' (although in fact they are preserved not in alcohol but in formaldehyde). We have some fruits, fish, and exhibits related to animal and human anatomy - various internal organs.

The collection contains very specific teratology examples, i.e. deformities - Siamese twins, a Cyclops kitten, an eight-legged Cyclops baby goat and more.

I think we will put these appalling exhibits back to the permanent renovated exhibition, as these anomalies are also part of the natural process, they clearly demonstrate what happens when a particular biological process goes wrong. We don't know yet how to present them, because not many people would love their sight.

Our permanent exhibition has one creepy exhibit - a stuffed dog with a puppy's head. It is an experiment conducted in 1956 by Vladimir Demikhov. Many visitors consider it as animal cruelty. But it is surely not. Vladimir aimed to study the possibility of organ transplantation. This operation was successful and it proved that organ transplantation is possible. Actually, Demikhov's experiment have saved thousands of people's lives.”