Day 3. First impressions: Almaty

We're in Kazakhstan!

The last couple of days have been very eventful. On Saturday 30 April, Natalie and I have made our way to London Gatwick with suitcases full of conservation equipment – microscope, conservation vac, brushes, dental tools, adhesives, packaging materials, Japanese tissue paper – as well as mosquito nets, torches, hiking boots and insect repellent. At the airport, we met the Otrar project leaders: UCL archaeologists Giles and Odile, and project manager Gai from the Margulan Institute of Archaeology of Kazakhstan. Two flights, nine hours, and lots of Otrar questions later, we landed in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city and cultural and economic capital. The next two days were spent meeting UCL Qatar students, buying extra conservation supplies, finalising details of the trip, and getting to know our international team. With archaeologists, conservators and facilitators from the UK, the US, Australia, Russia, Egypt, Yemen, Canada, Tanzania, Norway, France, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, you don’t get much more international than that!

Despite the jetlag and our busy schedule, we managed to see a little bit of the city and squeezed in a visit to Almaty’s biggest museum. I thought Almaty was amazing, full of startling contrast, with a mix of Eastern European, Asian and Middle Eastern influences. We saw mosques, Russian Orthodox churches and 19th century stately homes nestled in the shadow of Soviet concrete blocks and soaring glass skyscrapers by top international architects. Busy urban life and heavy traffic was offset by numerous green parks and snow topped mountains overlooking the city. The people were very friendly and personable, though brisk ‘Soviet-style’ service was not uncommon!

Central State Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan in Almaty

Central State Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan in Almaty

The Central State Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan was built in 1985. The landmark building with its huge dome and ribbed vaults, monumental columns and narrow arch windows was evidently designed to resemble Islamic architecture, as well as a grand proletarian palace of culture. Inside was a large and rather eclectic collection of objects, including archaeological finds from important Kazakh sites like Otrar, national dress and other traditional objects, taxidermy and various social history artefacts. I liked the elegant archaeological display solution, where wall-mounted fragments of objects were overlaid with contextual line drawings on the front of the showcase (unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures of the exhibition areas). Natalie commented on a large number of dioramas, which have fallen out of fashion and been ripped out by many UK museums. Natalie felt that these were fascinating objects in their own right, and it was nice to see them liven up the rooms at the Almaty museum. For me, what stood out most, was the startling problem of light. Museum lighting is one of my main research topics, and I find it nearly impossible to look at exhibition displays without fixating on light. Many textile, paper and taxidermy objects at the Almaty museum appeared badly faded. This degree of fading is usually associated with prolonged daylight exposure, but in this case, as far as I could tell, most of the damage had been caused by strong electric light. Most rooms were been fitted with old-fashioned fluorescent tube lamps, probably leftover from the original Soviet-era design. The problem was compounded by tall and narrow lancet-style windows, which made some of the wall cases appear back-lit, with their contents cast in shadow. Bright ambient lighting in the rooms and the back-lighting effect of the windows meant that the objects on display had to be lit even more to compensate for the anchoring effect in human light perception. Sadly, over time these factors have taken their toll on the light-sensitive objects in the collection. I couldn’t help thinking of different creative solutions to the problem – suspended-frame flexible lighting, muting the effect of the windows with translucent solar film – and would love to see such a project ‘come to light’.

And then it was time to leave Almaty and fly 500 miles south to Shymkent, to commence the excavation and conservation work on the Otrar site. We have now safely arrived on the UNESCO base camp and look forward to the exciting weeks ahead!