Ironing out the wrinkles of history

The Iron Museum in Grodno has opened its doors to visitors

Grodno is a city of castles and kings. Although it’s known unofficially as an open air museum, it actually lacks a large number of these buildings. This has become especially evident with the huge number of visitors that the newly opened Iron Museum in the city centre received in its first two weeks. Director Alexander Shpakovsky and his wife Marina tell us what it has to offer behind its brightly painted doors.

Exhibition from Belarus’ first Iron Museum

The first visitor to the Iron Museum in the morning buys a ticket and informs the guides. “I’ve come to Grodno from the Brest Region, with my husband,” Natalia Sakharuk, from Pruzhany, explains. “He’s here on business and we rent a flat nearby. I decided to take a walk round the city when I spotted this museum. It’s very interesting!” Mr. Shpakovsky is pleased to welcome so many visitors but admits that he could hardly imagine that his museum would enjoy such popularity. “We have a steady stream of visitors on week days while crowds come at the weekends,” he says. “We sometimes have so many we can’t give the proper attention to all of them. We occupy a small premises with two museum rooms and a small antique shop in the third room, which we have run for some time.”

Grodno residents have lacked something of this kind. They view the18th century kitchen ware from all around the globe with pleasure. The museum exhibits a wooden barrel with strange holes in it: it’s the first device to produce ice cream. A beautiful cast-iron device with a strange ring and wonderful engraving is also on show: it’s the first implement to cut meat. Another interesting device looks as if you can only get your fingers inside: it’s a cutter for asparagus. Amongst the other exhibits are a stone salt breaker, a device for inhaling steam, nut crackers, various kerosene stoves, wash basins, oil mills, pounders and gas stoves. All are in perfect condition as if they have just been thoroughly warmed and polished.

“This is a not a museum for a single collector,” explains Mr. Shpakovsky. “No-one who’s ever visited us says that they have already seen similar irons and wash basins. I can reveal a small secret. We are preparing a surprise for the Grodno residents for the forthcoming Rouble denomination. A generation of people have grown up who do not remember what coins and money boxes looked like. At present, there are all kinds of them: made of china, clay or glass and mechanical ones. We hope to show many other forgotten items.”

The Grodno museum keeps the fullest and largest collection of irons; these have come from all over the world. Guide Marina Shpakovskaya knows the process of ironing well. She explains, “In fact, irons were not used for the purpose you’d expect today. One of our oldest exhibits is a 400-year-old English ship iron that looks like an ordinary metal cup with a handle. Hot coals were put inside to destroy uninvited ‘guests’ in the clothes such as lice, fleas and mites. Another similarly interesting exhibit was discovered in China; made around 2,500 years ago. It looks like an ordinary metal brick which can easily burn your hands. We keep a large collection of coal irons too; these weigh from 5-25kg. Potholders were used to protect the hands. These irons became dirty easily and it constant cleaning was necessary so that no spots remain on the clothes. We also keep wooden irons which our great-grandmothers used. In the course of time, cheaper and more convenient irons were invented: gas, steam and electric.”

The collection of irons is impressive. Among them are miniature examples, soldier’s irons with a hiking stove, square ones, iron-mousetraps, iron-blowers, as well as those decorated with leaves and animal figurines. The oldest ‘versions’ were very heavy and it’s impossible to imagine them in the hands of a modern lady. On looking at them, we are more reminded of a strong Nekrasov village woman. Nonetheless, ironing has always been known as a female business. “In Soviet times, we destroyed many historical artefacts.” continued Ms. Shpakovskaya. “When we were schoolchildren, I remember we had to collect waste paper and metal. Sometimes we came to a house with a request to give us what they did not need and were told to take anything we wanted from a barn. I think with regret of the times when we destroyed piles of newspapers from the time of the Tsar and real rarities. It would have been great to travel to the past through those items now.”

By Tatiana Kondratieva
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