Zoya Museum Complex: Connecting Today’s Audiences to the Past’s Turbulent Times

Read Time: 5 minutes

The New York and Moscow offices of Lorem Ipsum developed and designed the new exhibition experiences inside Russia’s Zoya Museum, engaging visitors in the story of Moscow’s defense during WWII.

Located in a bucolic landscape of agricultural fields and wooded plots, the rural community of Petrischevo, Russia, sits about 100 km (60 miles) west of Red Square in downtown Moscow. At first the town seems unassuming, but inside this village of modest homes there also stands a gleaming-white modernist building. It is a new museum testifying to the events which rocked Petrischevo 80 years ago as Hitler’s armies invaded the Soviet Union.

The Zoya Museum Complex designed by the Moscow firm A2M, tells the story of the Nazi invasion of Russia and in particular the bravery of one young Soviet citizen—Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya—who attempted to repel the Germans’ attack during World War II in 1941.

The New York office of Lorem Ipsum developed the concept for the museum’s exhibitions, and its Moscow office handled the design, engineering and construction of the gallery spaces, including curatorial research and artifact selection. The building was completed this past May, but the exhibitions opened in early September, just in time to accommodate field trips of Russian students, some very close in age to Zoya at the time of the Nazi invasion.

Zoya’s story is known to most in Russia. She was a student from the town of Petrischevo who died at the age of 18 in what the Russians call the “Great Patriotic War.” Zoya volunteered as a civilian soldier and was assigned to burn down a nearby village in an effort to try and halt the German advancement. There, she was caught, beaten, hanged—her body was mutilated afterwards. Ever since those dark days, Zoya has been hailed as a patriot and hero, and the new Zoya Museum serves as a memorial to her and all the “Moscow Region Warriors” who fought to turn back the Nazi tide.

How, then, to portray this tragic story to modern-day visitors—and especially to teenagers—in a way that will engage everyone? Lorem Ipsum’s New York and Moscow offices collaborated on the design of the exhibitions in a way that even teenagers can connect with.

According to Abigail Honor, a partner and co-founder of Lorem Ipsum, it was important to convey Zoya’s story from her own perspective.

“We want people to empathize with and understand Zoya, the choices she made, and what happened to her,” said Honor. “And we want to present this exhibition in a new way, especially for teenagers.”

To do this, the Lorem Ipsum team decided to create a more theatrical, immersive experience punctuated with carefully curated objects and innovative digital technologies.

An introduction gallery provides the historical context for the Soviet society in which Zoya lived, but the real experience begins in the next gallery where a costumed guide takes visitors on a “day in the life” of Zoya. Here, visitors sit in a re-created rural classroom at school desks. The guide, dressed as Zoya’s teacher, recounts what school life was like for Zoya and her fellow students in the farming village of Petrischevo.

But then, after a few moments, this quiet scene shifts dramatically as the Nazi invasion begins.

“The lighting changes and the sound changes as the war rolls in,” says Honor. “And then, when visitors open their desks, they see all the things Zoya would have been learning at the time of the invasion.”

The students’ curriculum shifts from reading, writing, and mathematics to survival and fighting skills, taught in a military style.

“One of the things [the museum visitors] learn is how to use a compass, and they actually follow Zoya’s mission and learn where she went.”

The other museum galleries then continue Zoya’s story, including the forest where she hid out with other Soviet rebels, the streets of Petrischevo featuring the exterior of her home, and the nearby military trenches representing the Battle of Moscow. Visuals, lighting, sound—even temperatures—help convey Zoya’s story in dramatic ways.

“We really wanted to recreate these scenes, these immersive spaces,” said Honor, “so you could smell the mud in the trench and you could feel the cooler air in the village during the snow and you could touch the leaves on the trees, the last few that hung through the winter.”

One of the technologies used to convey Zoya’s story is a 10K-pixels-wide, wrap-around screen located in the Trenches gallery. Shot in 3-D, the film portrays German troops approaching Moscow.

One might think complex technologies presented a problem for the Lorem Ipsum co-teams who are located in two cities on two different continents, especially in this age of Covid-19. Instead the bilingual Russian/English staff at Lorem Ipsum’s Moscow office (who developed all the museum’s digital components) could easily share files with Loreum Ipsum’s New York office via electronic communications.

Complementing the digital technologies and the re-created scenes are displays of select artifacts from the collections of the original Petrischevo museum, a smaller Soviet building which formerly sat on the site of the new museum. But instead of placing the objects within large display cases inside empty gallery spaces, the Lorem Ipsum team placed the artifacts within the context of the historical scenes.

“There were hundreds and hundreds of artifacts [in the collection], and we really had to curate them carefully,” said Honor. “So, we brought together the most relevant, the most important, and the strongest to tell our story.”

Zoya’s story ends with her death at the hands of the Nazis, conveyed in the museum through enlarged black-and-white photos of her execution. But perhaps the real culmination of the museum’s exhibitions is the final gallery featuring a “living library” of portraits of people who experienced the war first-hand. All of these images were contributed—and continue to be contributed—by visitors to the Zoya Museum.

“I think it’s really important that exhibits change and grow over time,” said Honor, “and that the exhibitions change through conversations with visitors, so visitors are able to contribute to an exhibition, to enrich an exhibition, and to give another perspective to an exhibition.”

And, so far, museum visitors have contributed over 500 photos of family members involved in the Great Patriotic War. A color video of the descendants telling their ancestors stories accompanies each black-and-white portrait. The engaging display provides a fitting tribute to a young woman who lost her life defending her homeland and peoples nearly 80 years ago.

Project Name: Zoya Museum Complex dedicated to Hero of Soviet Union Zoya
Client: Ministry of Culture of Moscow Region
Location: Petrischevo, Moscow Region
Open Date: August 2020
Project Area: 9,150 sq ft
EGD Budget: $450,000
Architecture: A2M
Experiential Graphic Design: Lorem Ipsum Corp.
Design Team: Abigail Honor, Yan Vizinberg, Chris Cooper (partners); Masha Pyshkina (senior producer); Sveta Zvyagina (head of project); Betta Bereslavskaya (architect); Pasha Erko (head designer); Dasha Khandzhi (visualization); Aleksandr Chubenko (technical manager); Donsha Jones (post-production producer); Bruce Chilton, Stephen Maneri, Maks Zhura (editors); Anton Urkin (3D animation; Gevorg Manukyan (software developer)
Fabrication/Digital Integration: MKS/Croc