Family album

As the resident video-maker, I get to collaborate on the visual storytelling side of PEM. Our videos can add colorful background and relatable context to our exhibitions. For Fabergé Revealed, I was asked to build a video around the Russian Imperial Family who are an essential part of Fabergé’s success story. Many of the original Fabergé eggs were commissioned by the Romanovs to be made as gifts to one another. Some of these eggs can be seen among other family treasures in PEM’s exhibition, which closes Sept. 29.

The video makes use of the Yale Library’s rare collection of Romanov family albums. I wouldn’t be the first to say that these albums are compellingly intimate.

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The photos are not all fabulous portraits of the imperial ruling family at their best. Some are vacation photos, candids, hastily-assembled group shots. Some are blurry and overexposed. Alexei, the only son, often can’t stay still long enough for the camera’s slow shutter speed.

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Undeniably, a big part of the fascination with this family comes from their unfathomable wealth and collection of fancy inedible eggs…that is, until one reads about the brutal execution of the entire family by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918. Written accounts reveal the terrible moment when jeweled corsets worn by the daughters prolong the moment of their death.

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For the video, I assembled the photos of each family member on my computer and set them adrift on top of interior shots of the famous Alexander palace. I added a few 16mm film clips and captions where needed. Identifying the Tsar, his wife, Alexandra, and their son, Alexei, is never difficult.

However, the Romanov daughters — Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia — are harder to keep straight. They all grew and changed so much during this time period and they often resemble one another. Fortunately, some of the photographs come with handwritten descriptions. The writing, however, is a cursive Cyrillic.

I called on Victoria Glazomitsky, PEM’s special projects manager to the museum’s director, who happens to have been born in Russia and still speaks the language fluently. One caption I had her examine was under a photo of two of the daughters with a woman about the same age as their mother.

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The scrawl just below the photograph was clearly a description of the three people, but it was difficult for even Victoria to read. Within a day, she called me back with an answer: “The description reads ‘The Grand Duchesses, Olga, Tatiana and me.’”

I wasn’t expecting this translation to lead to even more questions. Who was ME? Looking at the Bienecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection page on the Yale Library site, it is explained that Anna Vyrubova, a close friend of Tsarina Alexandra, had not only taken many of the photographs, but had also kept the albums safe for several years after the Romanovs’ unfortunate end. So, the photo was likely of Anna and the two Grand Duchesses and captioned by Anna herself.

Exploring this rare collection of family photos led to all kinds of wonderful surprises like this. Take a look at the collection for yourself on the Yale Library site and be sure to come see the videos and the exhibition before it closes later this month.

Photos from the Romanov Collection. General Collection. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

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