Animals, Art, and Pavlov’s Dog: Minor Museums of St. Petersburg

Travel writing is a matter of making ordinary things seem strange, and making the strange, ordinary. Students will practice travel writing by visiting four unusual or odd museums in St. Petersburg and writing rough drafts of a narrative poem and three short essays of different kinds—a “Shouts and Murmurs”-style humorous vignette; a guidebook entry for future Semester at Sea students; and a personal essay for The Sun reflecting on their visit to one of these museums. We will review how to keep useful field notes and enjoy an “immersion journalism” that will help us revise our essays following our day’s trip. This day will see students and professor undertaking a series of related writing exercises conducted in the obscure settings of minor museums of St. Petersburg. Students will begin their day going to the Museum of Hygiene, where there are strange exhibits, waxworks, moving models of a glass man and a glass woman showing off internal organs, exhibits about human anatomy, infectious diseases and “bad habits.” Students will also be panting to see Pavlov’s original dog (stuffed) on permanent display there. Following the Museum of Hygiene, we will write in the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography known for its odd cultural histories, and then move on to the thousands of stuffed animals at the Zoological Museum and some of the dreamlike projects of a contemporary artists’ community, Loft Project ETAGI. These strange museums are background to a far more important project for the day:  for students to start seeing themselves as travel writers who are curious, observe well, wonder engagingly, and find appealing angles into exotic material. Ultimately a trip that runs counter to the usual pilgrimages to the Hermitage, it is hoped that students might go the next day to that internationally important museum. The day’s writing projects are necessary for the revisions and excisions we will begin the next day of class.

Academic Objectives:

1.  To learn about “immersion journalism” and apply its principles;

2.  To practice close observation and develop a sense of “truth” in narrative;

3. To develop the writer’s habit of being curious