CLINTON — Dozens of rosy-cheeked little faces greet visitors to the Museum of Russian Icons these days, a departure from the museum’s usual fare: Russian icons.
But according to a recent change in the museum’s mission statement, the exhibit “Matryoshka: The Russian Nesting Doll,” signifies less a diversion than a new direction.
Originally, the museum’s mission was to improve understanding between Russia and the United States “through the medium of art, especially Russian icons.” The new statement, approved by the museum’s board in March, calls for “the appreciation and study of Russian culture” through “icons and related objects.” The distinction may appear small but it broadens the types of exhibits the museum can host to include the cultural milieu in which the icons were made.
On loan from the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, the nesting doll exhibit includes 83 sets of matryoshkas, or hand-painted, hollow wooden dolls that stack, or “nest,” within one another in decreasing sizes. They have become iconic symbols of Russian culture and popular souvenirs — probably more familiar to the American public than the painted icons of the Russian Orthodox Church.
“Every tourist buys a matryoshka set,” said Kent Russell, CEO and curator of the museum, in an interview in the museum’s Russian tea room.
Since the museum was founded in 2006 by Gordon Lankton, who came to Clinton more than 50 years ago and helped build Nypro Inc., into a billion-dollar international plastics company, the permanent and temporary exhibits have largely showcased Russian religious art. Russian iconography is Lankton’s passion; he claims to have the largest collection of Russian icons in North America, with no close contenders for that distinction. In addition, he owns a smaller museum, the Gallery of African Art, also in Clinton.
From the Byzantine era onward, icons have been painted on carefully prepared wood panels depicting scenes and figures from the scriptures, and are venerated as sacred objects within Orthodox Christianity.
The museum treats its icons accordingly. But Russell said he works to combat the feeling of austerity or distance that many museumgoers experience in the face of valuable art, enshrined and untouchable. In the icon galleries, which make up most of the museum, no ropes or glass protect the paintings and there are no guards asking viewers to step back. Magnifying glasses hang next to the most intricate pieces, inviting visitors to lean in for a closer look at the faces of saints and prophets, many somber and haloed in gold.
For the matryoshka exhibit, the entrance to the display area features a table at child’s height that offers young visitors a place to play with the dolls — although some adults cannot resist stopping by to unstack and repack them.
One small doll sways precariously on a rounded base, causing a delicate bell to ring from within. Some of the dolls are decorated with religious scenes, but most depict Russian folklore narratives. A few even depict political figures. After the rise of Soviet state atheism, many icon painters switched to decorating matryoshkas while continuing to use many icon painting techniques. But for the most part, nesting dolls are secular items.
So far, the matryoshka show has been well received. Since the show went up, the museum has seen a 24 percent spike in visitors, with a 50 percent hike on Thursday evenings and Saturdays, the museum’s most popular times, according to Russell.
“We were nervous when we branched out, but it was the right thing to do,” said Lankton, museum founder. “Our attendance is much more than what it would have been otherwise. When you branch out, you gain new visitors.”
Attendance is important to Lankton, and not just because he wants the public to see Russian icons. He built the museum in Clinton in large part to contribute to the local economy, and more visitors mean more vibrant businessess on Main Street.
“It’s an evolution, but not a revolution,” said Russell. “We knew that this precise evolution would occur from the beginning. We knew the first five or so years we would spend being a specialty, niche museum of Russian icons to establish leadership in the field. We felt that American audiences knew very little about icons. If we started early on doing hybrid shows, looking at peripheral interests to icons, we would confuse people and we would possibly lose our track.”
Now that the museum has positioned itself as an internationally recognized center for icons, he feels comfortable turning his attention elsewhere.
“We just wanted to go straight for the icons, and then open it up,” he said. “That’s our trajectory, and it’s deliberate.”
Matryoshkas are just the beginning. In the next few years, the museum plans to exhibit folk art, Soviet political posters, photographs from Siberia, and Russian depictions of Saint Nicholas. Russell would also like to curate exhibits on samovars and 20th-century Russian abstract drawings. But the museum will retain its strong focus on traditional, sacred items. In 2015, an exhibit on the origins of the Russian icon will feature the oldest Russian icon and one of the oldest Byzantine icons, on loan from the British Museum, where it is currently on display.
Lankton, who is 82, wants the museum he created to continue to adapt, while retaining a strong focus on his core icon collection.
“We have a 100-year plan,” he said. “We spend a lot of time thinking about all the things that can go wrong. Some museums start to slowly go downhill if they don’t bring enough variety. We are a specific museum, but we will have a lot of variety.”Benjamin Soloway can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.