Culture is a Resource of Russia Able to meet
The Director of the State Hermitage Mikhail Borisovich Piotrovsky
gave his views on Russian culture and history to the editor in chief of
the magazine History. Law. Politics Sergei Glushachenko and deputy editor
in chief Valentina Rumyantseva.
Obviously there is. In Soviet times visitor numbers were higher, at about 4 million people. Then this dropped to 1.5 million and then gradually grew.
The number of visitors is not an absolute criterion for measuring a museum’s
efficiency. In Soviet times it was important and this trend spread to
the West, where museums increased the number of visitors they could take
Museum efficiency is not a simple idea at all. At the moment the State Hermitage has about 2.5 million visitors, and this is the limit.
Therefore, in assessing the efficiency of a museum a more complex criterion should be considered, the mutual relation between society and the museum. Most of our visitors are appreciative people with high artistic demands. Our website describes the development program of the State Hermitage. For more than ten years it has provided a multimillion audience with information on the museum, its collections, exhibitions and events in museum life. Today the Hermitage website is not just an information resource, but also a way of exchanging opinions on modern cultural life and museum policies.
A museum is a custodian and scientific arena, a powerful organism, a research establishment. Displays are just one part of the museum’s activities. The museum doesn’t only provide a service to its visitors, but also fulfils a state function, guarding and studying cultural heritage.
- What about the State Hermitage’s international activities, does it work together with leading international museums?
There is a general museum family which operates as a single museum space in Russia (the Union of Russian Museums) and around the world (International Council of Museums). There are groups which provide exchanges and coordinate the work of museums.
We meet about twice a year: once just Europeans, and once together with Americans. We discuss specific projects and issues which concern all museums, which are often related to exhibitions. For example, exemption from seizure and state insurance guarantees.
So, the Bizot Group (named after Ire`ne Bizot, the former head of the French organisation Reunion des Musees Nationaux and who organised, together with American and British colleagues, informal meetings of museum directors) unites about 20 of the world’s leading museums.
We exchange exhibitions, organise master classes, run training programs
for young people from different countries and send our employees for work
experience. As part of this partnership we are currently exhibiting a masterpiece of Venetian painting, Storm by Giorgione. The State Hermitage
actively works outside Saint Petersburg in centres in Russia (Vyborg,
Kazan) and abroad in Amsterdam (The Netherlands), Ferrara (Italy). Our
know-how is a certain Russian aggression of our projects in these
We actively use the experience of all international museums. In Russia we are now trying to introduce state insurance guarantees (Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation doesn’t like this very much). We argue that it is better for the government to guarantee insurance payments than to pay commercial insurance. In such instances museum solidarity helps, for example letters of support.
Museums really are one family.
When we began to learn how to live in the market economy jungle international museums opened their holy of holies: a list of donors (museum sponsors), fundraising methods, share their secrets, what everyone does their own way and how they carefully look after things. Museums, of course, sometimes get involved in commerce, but this isn’t business, the ethics is different, not just economics.
- Does UNESCO play a real or formal role in supporting the State Hermitage?
Thanks to the joint efforts of the State hermitage and UNESCO in 1994, the International Advisory Board was formed. Its members were from the largest cultural and art institutions. From their many years experience in managing and working in such institutions, the Board members supported the State Hermitage in developing and implementing a development strategy which complied with the highest international standards. The Board convenes annually.
- Does the State Hermitage participate in international auctions? Does the international community provide help in combating forgeries?
International auctions carefully follow the origin of items and if they have any doubt remove them from the exhibition. But there are a huge number of collections in the world. A person has lived a long life, collected, and then the children donate the collection to museums or sell them or open a museum themselves.
The world is rich in collections, which can’t be said of the Russian market. Therefore, Russian museums are constantly threatened by raiders. There are enough of these problems now.
It is hard for the State Hermitage to participate in auctions. As soon as it is known that the Hermitage plans to buy something, the price soars. Nevertheless, this needs to be done at the right time.
Not long ago in 2010, we bought the wonderful collection Galerie Popoff & Cie, which didn’t sell at auction during the height of the global economic crisis, and we found the funds to buy it directly from the dealer and at a cheaper price.
Some call this purchase the “deal of the century” for the State Hermitage, 92 watercolours and more than 140 porcelain pieces. The collection was mainly put together by A.A. Popoff, a regular officer and participant in the First World War. He moved to France in 1919 and opened an antique shop in Paris which only accepted works of art according to their artistic value. The central place in the collection was taken by watercolours from the first half of the 19th century, the period when this genre blossomed in Europe and Russia (works from more than 30 artists of that period, some known and some half forgotten).
Pride of place in the Galerie Popoff & Cie is occupied by unique porcelain, some of which are examples of Russian porcelain from the second half of the 18th century, most of all items from the Imperial Porcelain Factory in Saint Petersburg, which were made directly for members of the Romanov house and close company.
Very recently, we bought a French silver dressing table set from the
18th century, which might have belonged to Pushkin’s Queen of Spades.
It wasn’t very expensive as nobody realised that
As for the State Hermitage participating in the sale of exhibits, we have never done that. This was done by the Soviet government. A lot of people are talking and writing about the crimes of the Soviet government, selling cultural heritage at auctions at first and then directly to collectors. I think we should know about this, it is an important educational moment for our society as a whole. Nobody should be tempted to squander the national heritage.
- What is the social function of the State Hermitage in helping spiritual development and youth policies?
When we talk today about spirituality, for some reason we think of religion. But museums as a cultural part also carry spirituality.
The State Hermitage has a strong social program, which is provided for by museum income. No other museum in the world has this.
Every year, since 2004, the State Hermitage opens its doors for children, teenagers, young people with health difficulties and their parents. We have the best transport system for disabled people. The State Hermitage is the most technically equipped museum in the world. There are special programs for special needs children, pupils from children’s homes and also visually impaired people. Employees from the scientific and educational department conduct excursions, introduce new exhibitions and artists from the Hermitage Theatre hold concerts.
The basis of the State Hermitage social program is that the museum is free to children and students of any nationality and for Russian pensioners. Once a month the museum is free to everyone. In total, about half of our visitors enter free. There is a discounted rate for Russian citizens.
- Are modern museum employees, especially young ones, trained enough to work in the state Hermitage?
I am convinced that museum employees are the best of the intelligentsia in modern Russia. They are constantly improving their level and constantly carrying out research.
Thanks to their vast knowledge, fantastic education, including that received from working in the museum in hard post Soviet market times, museum employees have been able to preserve and strengthen the ideological and educational function of the museum, based on their professionalism and acting for the good of society.
Museum business is one of the most rapidly developing cultural fields. The State Hermitage participates in competitions to obtain grants for conducting professional training in foreign museums for young specialists.
- The Palace Square is adjacent to the State Hermitage. Is the museum influencing its development?
The Palace Square is a Russian state memorial. Forming direct line are Triumphal Arch of the General Staff Building, the Alexander Column and right behind it the Alexander Hall in the Winter Palace, the War Gallery of 1812 and the Armorial Hall, symbols of the Russian nationhood.
The State Hermitage is a memorial of Russian imperial history. One of
the projects for the Hermitage’s 250th anniversary in 2014 is the museum
complex in the Eastern Wing of the General Staff Building. And then the
whole of the Palace Square will shine anew. We are working on creating
a Museum of the Russian Guards, which will strengthen the square’s ceremonial
role. We need to educate society in the spirit of Russian military honour
No concerts are allowed now on the Palace Square without our approval. We have made all organisers buy third party accident insurance during celebrations held on the square.
We are developing a free parking plan for tour coaches on the Palace Square. All roofs and embankments were clear in winter. It was safe to walk next to the Palace Square.
The Palace Square is the heart of Saint Petersburg, which should beat to the rhythm of Russian state history. It should have a special status, a special life which is determined by the power of our heritage.
- How do the activities of the World Wide Club of Petersburgers, of which you are the President, influence the development and strengthening of the cultural heritage and memory of Saint Petersburg?
The World Wide Club of Petersburgers has gathered different people, all of whom are concerned about the city.
One of the areas of our work, if I can put it that way is to “keep the memory of the city”.
There are programs Petersburg Family Tree, Forgotten Names, City Aesthetics. As part of the latter recordings are made in three books: White, Black and Red.
The White Book includes information on architectural sites which embody the soul of the city. The Black Book records crimes which disfigure the city’s style (the elite residential block Montblanc and the cruiser Aurora). The Red Book is a book of warning. It records things that endanger the city (the unrealised Okhta-centre project, the new Mariinsky Theatre building which is being built).
- Mikhail Borisovich, could you tell us what your opinion is on the question of where the border is between the falsification of history and interpretation of history?
At the last meeting of the presidium of the Council for Culture and Art and the Council for Science, Technology and Education, dedicated to preparing for celebrating the 1150th anniversary of the birth of Russian nationhood, I said that we have created something great. We recognised what people had struggled for, bore persecution, it’s a Norman question. Of course, the Riurik mythologem, which has given rise to many arguments, is now becoming a sign of quiet recognition of an external factor in our historical world outlook.
We have to get used to living in a multidimensional space. A classical example: in the French history of Borodino they won, in ours we did.
The figure of Ivan the Terrible is missing from the Millennium of Russia monument. Such is the judgement of history.
When Kazan celebrated its 1000 year anniversary, Saint Petersburg wanted to build a statue of Peter I there. Kazan refused categorically to accept it, as they consider him to be a tyrant who tried to convert them by force to orthodoxy.
In history only the facts should be considered. In culture it is slightly more complicated.
- 2011 is the anniversary of the fall of the USSR. How do you feel about this event?
It’s a historical event, which needs to be looked at quietly and realistically: it shouldn’t be mourned but it shouldn’t be celebrated.
For me the Soviet Union was a form of preserving the Russian Empire. There was no other way at that time to maintain territory. Twenty years ago the country broke up. For me, as a person working in a symbol of the Russian Empire it isn’t a pleasant break up.
Now we need to learn to think in new conditions, as the English did when the British Empire collapsed. They were able to decide how to live on.
- What do you think of Russia’s historical mission, and does it exist at all?
Each country has its mission, great or modest.
Russia’s main historical mission is to preserve its heritage, preserve that which was handed down from our ancestors. Life is memory. Memory distinguishes people from animals, while culture is the memory not inherited biologically.
The better Russia preserves its spiritual heritage, the greater our country’s role will be in the world. Americans have succeeded in this. They attentively, carefully relate to all their short history. This how the state fulfils its social function and the state becomes an example to imitate.
- Mikhail Borisovich, how can we save our spiritual heritage?
The state machine has to understand that preservation of culture is its duty. Culture has been remembered, talked about and at the moment there have appeared new long term programs in Russia.
A new draft law on culture has been made, which gives us great hope.
Culture is almost the only competitive resource in Russia (apart from armaments) and we should look after it as much as possible.