Museums Under Quarantine. From Moscow to Kyoto - News - Russian impressionism museum
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Museums Under Quarantine. From Moscow to Kyoto

14 May 2020

The world is changing drastically before our eyes. This affects our museums, exhibitions, our visitors and us personally. Museum employees are people who are in love with what they do. They go to the “temples of culture” in order to worship art, people, sensibility, kindness and everlasting virtues, and not simply to earn money. Museum people even share the same language, it is a universal language of art, images and stories. With this project, we want to reflect on how the area will evolve, how we shall build our work, how we can help our visitors and how not to lose our connection with them at this challenging time.  

The Museum of Russian Impressionism has interviewed people from different museums across the world and learned how their life is organized now. 


Interview of Conversation between the exhibition department coordinator, Daria Uryadova, with the director of the Zuloaga Museum in Pedraza Castle, Carlos Alonso.



We have known each other with Carlos Alonso, director of the Zuloaga Museum in Pedraza Castle from the time when we worked together on the exhibition "Impressionism and Spanish Art", where I was coordinating our museum's participation, and Carlos loaned us two works from the collection of his museum.

We started our interview on Monday, right in the middle of the working day. I had just finished my lunch and moved from the kitchen to my desk, and Carlos stopped working for a while.

When I ask him about his work-from-home dress code, he says that of course, he doesn’t have one – he works in comfortable clothes. However, when there are official video calls several times a week, he has to wear something more formal on top. Outside of the camera image, however, he stays wearing his pajamas. I usually use the same trick when I go live with museum guests on our Instagram. No one will see it anyways. Carlos suspects that all his colleagues dress the same way during video calls (and among them – employees of the main museums and cultural institutions in Spain). Everyone except Maria Rosa Zuloaga, head of the board of trustees of the Museum Zuloaga foundation located in the Pedraza Castle (and granddaughter of the painter). According to Carlos, she prepares for each video call very carefully:  Marie-Rose sets the background (usually these are interiors or exteriors of the castle), adjusts the light, prepares herself.

I sit at my desk where on a normal day I would occasionally use my computer or draw if there is some free time. This is my office for the duration of the quarantine. Though I should admit that sometimes the office moves to the sofa or to the balcony when it is particularly warm outside. Carlos also has his office on the terrace now with a nice view of Madrid. That comes as no surprise, given the current weather in Madrid – the temperature reaches 20 degrees Celsius.


1) I think it’s even better now than when you work from the museum. There you sit inside and here you spend your whole day breathing fresh air.  


You see, I have to say, I’m pretty lucky with my museum because when it’s warm (and warm season lasts for 8 months in Spain) you can work outside as well, in the gardens. In the museum we have a beautiful garden, we even have a swimming pool. So, in the summertime, I go to the museum two or three times per week because it is outside of Madrid. I work all morning, and then I go for lunch back to Madrid or I have it here. And in this case, after lunch, I take a quick swim. So yeah, it’s really relaxing to work there. I miss all this very much.


2) Yeah, I can only envy you. In a good way, of course. Although sometimes in the summer we can go out to work on the open terraces of our museum too. So, is this how your day used to look like before coronavirus?


More or less. It depends on the day. I wake up very early, around 6:30-6:45. I start working at about 8-8:30. At this time already I may have my first meetings. Normally we would have breakfast during a meeting too. I really like such meetings because it is a great way to start your working day. If I have to go to Pedraza (as I told you, it is about 3 days a week), I have breakfast at home then. As long as I stay in Madrid and I don’t have meetings, I work from home. Or if I am in Pedraza, I work from our office there. Actually, my working hours are not fixed from 9 to 5.


3) I can't say the same for myself. We have a strict schedule at the museum. But, of course, working days themselves are not similar at all. During the day I either discuss something with my colleagues (current or upcoming exhibitions, new projects), or sort out my emails, prepare documents for exhibitions, etc. Luckily, there is time to study some new information too. In addition, several times a week I give guided tours of both main and temporary museum exhibitions, and sometimes give lectures. Of course, most of my life is associated with the museum. And everything has changed now with the quarantine. Since I don’t need to commute to the museum and back, I sleep a lot more. I think that for these two months of quarantine I’ve already slept for years.

All our work has now moved online. We don't organize meetings but we stay in touch with colleagues to discuss our exhibition projects via messenger chats, which I have plenty. We did not stop our work, however, some of my responsibilities are currently irrelevant while others increased significantly. For example, there are no more excursions, but sometimes I do live streams with short lectures about our collection and connect with our guests through the Instagram account of the museum. I have much more time for research too. I started studying the materials for my presentation at the Museum conference. However, it is not clear yet when it will take place. But this study provides new topics for research, as well as new ideas for exhibitions. And what does your day look like now?


It has changed a lot as well. I wake up at around 9 o’clock which is very late for me. Then I work the whole morning in a quite relaxed mode. I have to say that I love this very much. We usually work very hard on urgent matters, things that need to be done here and now. At the moment, there are significantly fewer such cases, and I can work on projects that are really important, but the deadline is still far away. And I like it.


4) I remember that you’re doing workouts. Do you have more or less sport in your daily routine now?


Of course, less. Normally I would go for a run every evening for five-ten kilometers, more or less. Now sometimes I try to compensate by running up and down the stairs in my house. My house has 15 floors and I do it 10 times, I think. But usually I do more sports than now.  


5) Our museum is closed since March, 17. How does your museum work now?


Our museum is not open either. We don’t have the capacity.

Right now we are working on reorganizing the whole procedure of our museum. So, we can reopen in a more sustainable and professional way. We are reconsidering various aspects of our work.

And we work on the catalogue of our collection. This is a family collection so it’s not so easy to do this catalogue. I mean when you live with artistic objects you don’t perceive them as artistic objects anymore. They become your home décor. People who live with Rodin statue or painting by Gauguin, for them this is just the stuff that they have around. So, making the catalogue of such family collection is like “Oh, have you seen this wonderful painting by Toulouse-Lautrec? We have it in our bathroom!” So, we are doing such catalogue, and it has to be finished before the opening of the museum. This museum has been working for 20 years but it was a family museum and only two years ago we established a foundation so it turned into a professional thing. Before it was only a family house. It was open from Wednesday to Saturday, only in the mornings and it was only two little rooms. So we are reorganizing and studying our own collection.

And we are also planning our activities for the next five years. We are rescheduling our future exhibitions but we have certain plans until 2024 more or less. We are a small museum but if you want to work with big museums (and we do), you need to plan long-term. We are opening big exhibitions in the USA next fall. We also plan to make a big Zuloaga exhibition in Germany in 2023. And we are studying the possibility of making an exhibition in Moscow.

Furthermore, we are reviewing the capacity of our spaces and facilities so that we can show more of our collection in the future. What we also think is how to display our collection. For example, we have Zuloaga’s paintings and also the family has the collection of dresses that appear in those artworks. So we would love to exhibit them together.


6) That’s a lot of work. How many employees do you have in the museum?


Six. We hire extra people for guiding and we outsource some of our activities (accounting, MICE, social media) and we also have scholarships and interns.


7) Wow! You alone have plenty of work. Now I understand why you wake up so early and sleep so little. Have you started to work more online during quarantine?


Yes, we have, but not solely because of the quarantine but because we wanted to start doing it for a long time. Now we want to change our website. So we are working in this direction a lot. And we also work on the possibility of moving our whole detailed archive online. The archive is really amazing, we have lots of documents and letters, we want it to be open to all the scholars. Plus, we want to publish different videos and articles about Zuloaga on the Internet.

So I can say that we have three great projects going on in the museum right now. First is raising awareness of Zuloaga’s name all over the world. The second one is the archive. We need to open our archive to public. And the third one is about kids and schools. That’s our biggest contribution – to provide kids with access to the painter.


8) Do you need to visit the museum to do all this stuff or you may work from home?


I’m not visiting the museum. Though I’m going to visit it next week. I have special permission because I need to check some items on conservation and I need to speak with Maria Rosa.


9) I see. We are not allowed to go to work either. Anyways, as for me, I don’t need to do it now. My work computer is a laptop, so I moved all my work home quite easily. Do you like this format of work?


No. Even though I usually work a lot from home and from Madrid, I prefer to work from Pedraza, because I prefer to be close to the things I’m working on. Plus, it’s much better to write about Zuloaga when he is looking at you from the wall 😊. But I do miss the personal contact as it’s pretty essential for me. We do plenty of things because we are close to each other. It’s always a matter of people. I think that people need to be in contact with people. Only in this case we can do something good. Because it’s very important – how you look at each other, how you interact.

And of course, I think that the main problem when you work from home is that you never leave work. You’re always working. I go out to my staircase workout and I still think about what I need to do.


10) Yes, that’s true. But you and me, we are very lucky that our job is our hobby, right? How does your city live now? Of course, we know something from the news, but I prefer to know it from you.   


What can I say… It’s a ghost city. Just a few days ago the government let children go outside. This is the first relief measure since the start of coronavirus–related quarantine. Though the whole situation in Spain now is pretty good. We have more people going out of the hospitals than those going in. The number of new cases is decreasing faster than in Italy and France. The country in general, except for the regions of Catalonia and Madrid (which have a total population of thirty million people), have a very small weight of coronavirus. Now I’m talking only about my city.


11) We have the same situation in Russia. Moscow and Moscow region are affected the most. How did this situation affect you and your family personally?


My parents are both more than 70 years old. Plus, my mom is asthmatic. So both of them are in high–risk group. That’s why together with my brothers and sisters we are doing all we can to keep them more or less safe. My grandma is on the contrary. She is 96. And right now she is infected with coronavirus. So we are waiting for the news. We will see what happens with her but I have to say that I don’t know why, but I’m pretty confident that she will be okay as she lived through this civil war that was the cruelest war of the 20th century. In those years people died in millions and it was brother against brother. It was unimaginable cruelty. That generation, I think, is nearly immortal, really. But of course, we don’t know what to wait from this virus. I have friends who were infected, and some of them told me they had only a light flu while others told me that it was a nightmare. We’ll see.


12) I’m so sorry to hear this. I hope that everything will be okay soon. What will the museum look like in the future?


I think that after the quarantine people will come back for sure. Of course, we will put in place different measures like social distancing, we won’t let a lot of people stay at the museum at the same time. This is in the nearest future. But by the spring of the next year, we will come back to normal. I’m sure. People are eager to come back to the museums and to see paintings. To see the painting itself is much more valuable than to see its image. And that’s our strength. And most of my colleagues in Spain would agree with me.


13) What’s your dream?


Get on a plane and go to some destinations I wanted to visit before coronavirus. I wanted to go to Egypt, to Guatemala, Uganda and India. And I hope that it will happen very soon.


14) Such a great plan! My dream is just to walk for a whole day.


That’s the thing. I’m not trapped at home. I’m trapped in Spain.