A Journey Into European Puppetry

Walker Percy

Empty Museums and Cultural Marginalia

Abandoned Movie Theatre

Abandoned Movie Theatre on Rustaveli Avenue

One of the things I’m attempting to do while in Georgia is to explore the culture to understand where the music, the dance and the puppetry comes from. In order to do this I find myself haunting some fairly out of the way locales. And that means finding museums that are not only ‘off the beaten path’ but almost abandoned. It’s weird to find yourself being the only person in a museum for over an hour. And these are ‘national museums’ and certainly listed as such. And yet when I arrive it seems that the main job of the friendly museum staff is to care for the treasures that they are sitting on. I’m also imagining that in the summer they get a bit more traffic than I’ve seen so far. And I hope they are getting school field trips and other purposeful visits as well. And yet as I open these cabinets of curiosities I am frankly entranced by what I find. And when I pay a few lari more I can get a personal guide to walk me through the collection and explain everything to me in the most knowledgeable ways.

Tamar Folk Painting

A folk painting of Queen Tamar at the Museum of Applied Arts

The Quay Brothers once told me that it wasn’t simply that they were attracted to puppets, rather it was the discarded things found at the fringes of art and society, the cultural marginalia, that inspired them. And I seriously understand this. To say you’ve been to Europe and that you’ve seen the Mona Lisa means almost nothing. Especially when you’ve entered the Louvre along with thousands of other visitors only to stare for a few moments at the small painting ensconced behind bulletproof glass and surrounded by endless quantities of tourists taking videos and selfies of the experience rather than actually seeing the thing itself. I get the same feeling when someone tells me they love films, then go on to list popular fantasy and science fiction films that quite literally 90% of earth’s population has seen. It all becomes part of what Walker Percy describes as a preformed symbol complex, making it nearly impossible for the average person to actually see the Grand Canyon or the Colosseum, even while standing before them. Thus those who really are able to grasp meaning from art or culture are not those who will wait for hours at the most recent super show at the Met, rather it is those who can stop and gaze at the patterns of embroidery on a regional costume. Those able to see through the musty scratches of an old silent film. Or those willing to find arcane treasures in forgotten museums.

Strange Tiled Cones

Strange Tiled Cones found on a random walk.

In some sense every museum in Tbilisi, Georgia, is already obscure by the standards of present day art and relic consumption. How many Americans could tell you who Niko Pirosmani is? And he is the most important artist from Georgia. Not to mention Lado Gudiashvili or Davit Kakabadze? Few indeed. But then again how many of my fellow citizens could even name a living artist? So even the most prestigious galleries and museums in Georgia are, by definition, marginal outside of Georgia. But I will save a discussion of the art for another essay and will only incidentally mention it here. (For more on Georgian art and culture follow this link.) (And since I have already written about my encounter with the Stalin museum elsewhere I leave aside that visit here.)

Georgian Parasol

Parasol and tea cups.

So let’s dive off the edge!

One of the most consistent features of these strange little Georgian museums is the fact that they are rarely advertised or even well advertised, even on the buildings they inhabit. Consider the most recent museum I discovered: The State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments. Sounds pretty interesting no? Especially if music interests you. So I walk up a street out of the way off the main tourist route. I’m looking for a sign. I see a little sign. So I turn towards the sign. Nothing. I walk a little into a passageway. What would you expect if you were looking for a museum? Not what I found. I basically entered a backyard, descended steps, and did not feel at all that I was about to enter anything resembling a museum. (See photo below.)

Georgian Music Museum

The Music of Folk Songs and Instruments: Absolutely invisible from the street.

I enter the building to find what I always find in these odd museums. Police guards. Who seem to be on the most boring duty imaginable. No one else. Nothing that immediately suggests museum. Just police. It was the same at the silk museum, and at the various small art museums. They must be there for a reason! But they usually look at you as if to insinuate ‘What are doing here?’ When I say something like ‘Museum?’ they point further back into…. what? I never know. I don’t know which way to turn. I am obviously the only person there who isn’t being paid something by the state. But then this is where the interesting stuff starts to happen. I find a closed door with people behind it. I motion at them. I hate to disturb them. Then they look at me as if to say ‘Did you want something?’ I say ‘Gamarjoba’ (‘Hello’ but literally Victory!). And ask if they speak English. Then offer to pay the entry fee. Which sometimes leaves them scrambling for something resembling change. Am I the first person today? And it’s an hour and a half until closing time! The fee is usually about 3 to 5 lari; less than two dollars. This time they asked if I wanted a guide. And this time I said Yes! And so they asked for 5 lari more. And so at the State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments my guide was a friendly and knowledgeable woman named Eka.

Georgian Musical Instruments

Eka pointing out the various Georgian instruments.

She started to walk me through the exhibits explaining to me the various instruments, how old they are, where they are from, and what they do. And then she is pleasantly surprised to discover that I am not your average tourist. But then again what on earth would the ‘average’ visitor to this museum be like? Nevertheless it is clear that I already know more about Georgian music than 99.9999% of all non-Georgians. So she gives me even better information than I was expecting. And then she stops and plays an old 78 rpm record of the song Tsintskaro on an ancient wind-up Victrola. Later she starts the mechanism of a street barrel organ, opening it to show the barrel and pin as it plays. Eka even sits to play an ancient Georgian church melody on an antique wheezy German foot pump church organ. Now that is five lari well spent!

Eka Plays Organ

Private concert by my guide Eka.

I also managed to locate the Georgian State Museum of Folk and Applied Art in the old town. Again I enter it takes fifteen minutes to make change for 20 lari. They did let me start looking at the museum as they were sent into a spiral of questions amongst themselves. (Am I the day’s only visitor again?) But soon I find myself drifting through Georgian carpets, traditional costumes, intricate parasols, and beautiful porcelain tea cups. And they were featuring a special exhibit of primitive paintings by random Georgians of Shota Rustaveli and Queen Tamar from the Golden Age of Georgia’s Medieval Period. Fascinating stuff. (Click on the photos to open up the images.)

National Silk Museum

Inside the Silk Museum

By far one of the most unusual experiences I had was at The State Silk Museum. First of all read that title again: The State Silk Museum. What could that be? Are they showing silk fabric? Well yes. But you see Georgia was a major stop on the Silk Road. And like Lyon, Tbilisi was a silk manufacturing town. And so not only was this a demonstration of fabric… It was also a display of silkworms! And all things sericulture. This is the kind of place Guillermo del Toro could only dream of. The lights were off in the cold museum and they turned one on and told me how to turn the rest of them on. Half of this museum was dedicated to silk cocoons, silk caterpillars in glass, and strange devices for silk harvesting, all in dark wood and aging glass cases from the museums opening over 125 years ago. And there was a whole room dedicated to mulberry shrubs, the silkworm diet. And did you know that silk quality depends on the mulberry quality? I didn’t. But my faithful guide Mariam did. She knew more obscure facts about silk than I could possibly ask. But somehow we ended up talking about music. It is Georgia after all. And not only is she conversant sericulture but she is a musicologist as well. And as our conversation veered from Jimi Hendrix, to Bach, to John Cage, to Bernard Herrmann she kept up eagerly with all of the twists and turns. I can’t even begin to tell you how many discussions about music I’ve had here. Worth all five lari I spent on the day!

Oh and speaking of obscurities, while visiting the musical troupe Erisioni (Be patient for that one!) I met a former BBC, NBC, etc cameraman, documentarian, an Australian of Ukrainian heritage named Vladimir Lozinski, who would later fill me on the turbulent politics of Georgia’s post-Soviet history. He had heard that there was a locked door in the building Erisioni rehearsed in. So he managed to get the room opened up while I was there. And we entered. This was genuinely a surprise. The vast chamber had been a movie theatre prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. Ornate designs were encrusted on the walls. But in the 90’s the Georgian Civil War, raging on the streets of Rustaveli Avenue below us, had destroyed it. The floor was dirt and debris. But the walls remained magnificent. We were allowed to take all the photos we wanted. And I could only hope that someday this along with many other structures would be restored… And not removed by the powers that be to build some hideous postmodern monstrosity.

Vladimir and Ramas

Vladimir Lozinski documenting the Abandoned Movie Theatre

And of course the most mysterious museums of all were the ones I most want to see. The puppet museums! A few days ago I sought for the illusive Tbilisi Puppet Museum, which supposedly was not too far from the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I didn’t find it. Today my friend Elene Murjikneli from Budrugana Gagra explained why. One day it was simply emptied out. Then the building was torn down. And now in its place stands sterile contemporary architecture housing a hotel. And what happened to the puppets? No one knows. The puppeteers didn’t know. Were they stolen? Hidden? Buried? Sold?

And finally there is the most mysterious museum of all which I discussed in my first visit to Tbilisi in 2016. The Animation Puppet Museum. Does anyone know that Georgia used to make puppet films in the Soviet Era? All I ever found was a corroding sign on the door. But!!! Now I have good news. The daughter of one of the animators has contacted me. And will open the doors of the museum soon… Just for me.

Speaking of the marginal and magical: Really I don’t need anyone else to come find me here. I’m fine. I’m happy with empty museums in this mysterious place.

Tbilisi Doorway

Who knows where the next doorway will lead?

But do come back soon to read my next adventure.

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia

16 / 2/ 2018

PS. The way things are going I’m pretty sure I’ll be counting my tetri (Georgian cents) in March. The financial losses I took at the beginning of my journey are starting to become apparent. If you are appreciating this reportage from the other side of the world then you can be a part of it by using  my PayPal account to contribute. It’s safe and easy to do and anything would be helpful. Thanks! Byrne