"We think three hundred years in the past"
250 years is the best reason for large restoration. The Hermitage
is getting ready for ceremonial and large scale changes. The museum director
Mikhail Piotrovsky told the Ogonek about them.
– The date is not soon. But, as is the Russian custom, we will celebrate it for several years. We don’t know what we will receive. We are going to give presents ourselves, with the help of the state, because we are a state museum. For such a large industrial centre such as Saint Petersburg, the Hermitage is a city forming international corporation. We are in the centre of the city which was once the centre of the Russian Empire. The empire no longer exists but we do. And the museum should become more active. So a number of initiatives have been undertaken on Palace Square, which will create a unified ensemble including the whole of the Hermitage, Palace Square and the Alexander Column (it is also a Hermitage exhibit) and the eastern wing of the General Staff Building, which was given to us and is now being restored. We plan that the first floor of the General Staff Building will become a city space with shops and restaurants. Life will bubble here, you will be able to enter here from the Moika and go through. We are also opening passages along the Small Hermitage right to the Neva. This movement which we are launching will organise life in a new way in the general museum space.
– Why are these passages closed now?
– Because they weren’t designed as passages, they are internal courtyards joining buildings. We are opening them and creating a new concept of the whole of Palace Square.
When we opened the entrance to the palace from the square a few years ago, this immediately became part of the museum.
We also want to create a Guard’s museum in the Guard Corps Staff Building. The Hermitage is doing all this urban project, placing the museum in the city, together with the Rem Koolhaas architecture studio.
The eastern wing of the General Staff Building, which I have already mentioned, has been half renovated. The first floor will be a city forum and the floors above museums of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Thanks to the passages, hanging gardens and a large staircase, which could serve as a theatrical amphitheatre, this project will turn this office building into something similar to the Hermitage.
There are two large premises in the Small Hermitage, the old stables and old riding hall. The storage facility was always here. Now it is being moved to our new storage facility, and we are making exhibition halls here with their own policies and separate entrance from the square.
– Please tell us about this new project, the Guard’s Museum.
– We want it to be a history of the Russian guards from Peter the First to the First World War, when the guard was destroyed. The museum will become a ceremonial place as its opening will be dedicated to the 1812 war, whose anniversary we shall soon be celebrating. We have put together vast collections, and we keep on receiving military relics, which were taken out of the country after the revolution. The Hermitage has good relations with those overseas military associations which have preserved flags, regimental archives and military regalia. The square itself has its own military traditions, it is best suited for parades than for anything else. This will be a place where the memory of Russian military glory will live, which we believe is extremely important for the army and for society.
– It is known that the iconostasis of the Winter Palace Church is also awaiting reconstruction. Will services be held there?
– Services with candles may not be held in the museum. However, we suggest that on the 25 December, the day the enemy was expelled from Russia, there is a special service and military parade, as used to happen. This is a special day in Russian state history.
– Tell us about the Hermitage’s new storage facility in Staraya Derevnya.
– The storage facility is a depositary of the Hermitage, and it is an open storage centre. Where’s the innovation? Large museums can never exhibit everything that they store. Therefore a museum is a storage centre where things are collected, studied, restored and some of which are shown. In large museums this part is 5-10 percent. That is how it is and how it should be. However, the collections should be accessible, and there are several ways of doing this. The number of galleries can be increased, which is why the General Staff Building is being renovated. Large exhibitions can be held, which we organise. Exhibition centres can be opened around the world, this we also do. The innovation is an open storage centre, which people can visit. The first phase of our storage centre in Staraya Derevnya is already built and operating. The second is under construction. The third, we hope, will be built.
– How did you avoid the temptation of building the storage centre nearer to the Hermitage and decide on the residential area of Staraya Derevnya?
– It is not that important whether it is near or not. And it is obvious that nothing can be built near the Hermitage.
– You might have been given another block.
– Nobody would have given us a block. Its best not to get involved in the historic quarters. This plot in Staraya Derevnya was given to us 30 years ago.
You could struggle and shout all your live if you wanted to get a place for the storage facility in the centre. Or you can find a place further away and make the storage facility as convenient as possible. Our storage facility is close to the metro. Here we have a restoration workshop, exhibition halls, lecture rooms, rooms for working with children, classrooms, rooms for working with vision impaired and blind children, school groups. Here we will have a museum, a large library, a publishing centre and the Saint Petersburg archaeology museum. In fact it is a second Hermitage... Therefore, we have created a museum complex which will also benefit the area it is in.
– Does your director of science work there?
– No, here. What does it matter where he works? We go here and there. I have an office there, here and in the General Staff Building. We operate as a large and serious institution, made up of several units.
– Is the money allocated for restoration sufficient?
– The government hasn’t allocated us any money, and we haven’t asked... I told the prime minister about our plans, and only then did he ask the minister if he had calculated how much it would cost?
– Even so, is 16 billion roubles enough? Or are unresolved issues being made?
– I think that it is enough, because we plan a year in advance. The main expense is the third phase of the storage facility, a new large construction.
– Where does most money and effort go, on walls or on restoring works of art?
– On both. A lot goes on walls, buildings are crumbling, and builders have very large appetites. Restoration is carried out by our specialists, which is cheaper and the costs are clearer.
– Do you argue with the builders?
– All the time. But I think we have quite a good system of control and cooperation. In addition, the funding, for example, of the General Staff Building comes from the World Bank and the Ministry of Finance, and they give money to the company doing the work. But the four sided agreements stipulate that nothing happens until we approve it. We have very strict control, without touching the money very much.
– Staff from the Hermitage laboratory of clocks and complex musical mechanisms have just received a state award. Please tell us about them.
– They are wonderful people who can bring life back to clocks as well as the music which lives in various clocks. The laboratory appeared only relatively recently, about 16 years ago. Everyone knows the Peacock Clock which was brought from England and given life by Kulibin. Then life gradually left them and now our restorers have returned them. Unfortunately, the laboratory’s founder, who began this work, died and his work is continued by his colleagues. They returned the Hermitage tower clocks to life. That was quite an event! People have forgotten how during perestroika the clocks suddenly began to chime on Palace Square. Now all our clocks work, and some play some wonderful tunes. This is magical and very important for us. Firstly, its a bad sign when clocks stop, they should work. Secondly, the work of our restorers helps us to think about the philosophy of time. Which for us, museum people, is very important and gives a special measurement of our work. These mechanisms are so complex, like modern electronics, except this magic is done by people’s hands. You know, we even held a contest between musical clocks and live musicians to see who was best.
– Who was?
– I think both were good, but together they were just fantastic.
– Where do such unique specialists come from?
– Fortunately, we collected these people in time, just when craftsmanship had already begun to disappear. They were given the chance to do what they loved most of all. One generation taught the next, now the third has appeared. At one point everyone thought that everyone has Swatch watches and nobody needs real great watches. But as it turned out, they are really needed. People wear mechanical wind up watches and collect them. This is also one of those things, not a victory for tradition over innovation, but innovation which preserves the memory of the past. And they are made by magicians who quietly sit in their workshops.
– What other magicians do you have?
– We have a huge amount. For example, picture restorers. Restorers of tempera paintings, which are paintings on wood, icons and early Renaissance art are special magicians. We have magicians, restorers of frescoes who find them during digs and then restore them. We have magicians, restorers of organic materials and metals. We have wonderful craftsmen working with cloth, with hands that can do almost anything.
– Does the Hermitage have a weaving workshop?
– Yes, it is wonderful. But it doesn’t weave it restores. At the moment they are restoring a glass bead panel for Oranienbaum. Our experts have restored tens of old costumes, which we are displaying at exhibitions. Now they are restoring silk in the Small Throne Room. They found a workshop in Lyon, where they once made silk for the throne room and, as it turned out, they still had samples of "our" velvet with golden eagles. Therefore, one of the main exhibitions for the 250th anniversary will be a history of restoration in the Hermitage and the achievements of our restorers. We hope that by that time, our restorers will have made several discoveries in paintings, one of which may be a Titian painting.
– You began talking about the special relationship between museum people and time. When you think about the Hermitage, what time periods do you deal with? Ten years, twenty?
– We think 300 years in the past. All thoughts on what will be in the future should always be touched by the past. Its not a weight but a brake which stops us jumping too far ahead. Just like for our clock laboratory, if we had waited a bit more we might have missed the moment.
– The Hermitage is always growing. But as we know, it is very difficult to manage large organisations.
– We’re not growing that much. We’re not new Russians who grab everything. We are old Russians, we have everything but strengthen with internal connections. We have the main Hermitage, the branches inside the storage facility to some extent manage themselves, they have a large degree of autonomy. All over the world museums expanded rapidly, and now we can see what this led to. Two large problems arise. Its not that large museums are hard to manage, but that they are impossible to maintain, especially if museums are filled with state-of-the-art technologies. Electricity, staff, guards, all expenses grow significantly. But the number of visitors doesn’t grow in the same way, especially as a lot of museums, like the Hermitage, have many free programs. The second problem is that the museum expands, expands and suddenly it turns out that there is nothing to show.
– Nothing? You just talked about huge museum archives.
– Everything should be displayed, but it is impossible to display everything, because people can only spend two and a half hours in a museum before getting tired. In addition, when you begin to put out everything, it turns out that many exhibits don’t reach the level of what is already displayed. Museums begin to argue with each other: give us this, give us that. The storage facility is another way of displaying. For example, all carriages are displayed. They stand close together, there are good ones, bad ones, restored ones and non-restored ones. You can choose where to stop and what to look at. Here pictures are hung close together. Masterpieces and not masterpieces. This is an important result of museum development. There should be no gigantomania.
– The Hermitage is still the biggest.
– No, not the biggest. The biggest are Japanese modern art museums, where you can ride on a bicycle around rooms with modern installations.
– I know that the museum has a computerised collection control system. Does it let you follow the fate of each exhibit, even the smallest?
– Yes, we have an electronic catalogue and all kinds of programs. But you have to understand that electronic and computer systems are just for assistance. Each exhibit still needs a description card and a document. And when data is stored electronically it still needs to be checked.
An electronic catalogue doesn’t save us from anything, because it is easier to delete information from it than from a written one.
– So you’re not a fan of new technology?
– We are the most technologically advanced museum. We had the best website, but now the Louvre has overtaken us. We have just signed a deal with IBM and will fight to get back the top position. However, I know that when I write a text, it needs to be printed right away and saved in three places. That’s also how we need to work in the museum.
– Mikhail Borisovich, the previous large Hermitage anniversary was in 1964, the 200th anniversary and the director was your father, Boris Piotrovsky. Do you remember it?
– I do. Firstly, I remember that the anniversary kept on being moved. A lot of exhibitions were open, showing Hermitage collections. There was a large ceremonial meeting. We won’t do that in the future. We’d rather get people onto the square and think up something interesting.
– You have an icon of Saint Catherine in your office. Is this because the Hermitage’s birthday coincides with the saint’s day?
– I have two Catherines. One is the Empress (points to a large portrait on the office wall – "Ogonek") and Saint Catherine, they both protect us. The saint protects the empress, and she protects us.
– Can you tell us if someone who knows everything about the Hermitage can still discover something new here?
– Of course, even I can. Everyone who works in the Hermitage can. There are always new discoveries. You have to understand, the museum is not a warehouse but a very lively organism, and each item has its own life. It is restored and looks differently and tells about its time differently. An item is studied, its attribution is changed, is moved to a different place, and it changes once more. For example, Alexander the First’s briefcase could have just lain in the exhibition, but if the Treaty of Vienna is placed next to it then its meaning changes. Items have energy, and we need to help them express themselves.
Last year we discovered a walled up sculpture by Vladimir Beklemishev. The museum was just preparing for a Beklemishev exhibition and this sculpture just knocked on the door.
You see, I said that everything here happens in time.
Interviewer Ekaterina Danilova