Itís Impossible to Get Used to the Hermitage
The Romanov family held dynastic authority of the Hermitage for a century and a half. Mikhail Piotrovsky, in his turn, has embodied the dynastic directorship of the nationís main museum, passed on to him by his father, for almost 20 years. The royal tradition is still alive and well. Perhaps this is right. Frequent successions are unsuitable for the custodians of global treasures; whose hands such things fall into is not to be taken lightly. The Piotrovskys are a Russian noble family with polish roots. Mikhail Piotrovskyís father, Boris Borisovich, was a world-famous archaeologist, the mind behind the sensational excavations of the ancient Urartaean fortress of Teishebaini, near Yerevan. He spent his entire life working at the Hermitage, and was its director for 26 years. A few months after the death of his father, Mikhail Piotrovsky, who is also an academic and archeologist, was invited to the Hermitage as Deputy Scientific Director, and, after a while, took on the post of director.
-Your father was in charge of the Hermitage during a time that was hardly fit for reform, a tendency that even extended to the world of museums. None the less, he got a lot done. Most importantly, he opened a window to Europe for the Hermitage, brought it onto the global cultural landscape. You took charge of the museum in 1992, which was, not to put too fine a point on it, not a great time for the museum. The revolutionary changes taking place in the country as a whole could not fail to affect the Hermitage as well. What did you have to deal with back then?
- The Hermitage was in good condition when I took it over. The museum was not in any particular distress. There were two troubling issues. First of all, the Hermitage had been practically without financing for several years; its fac,ade and interiors had deteriorated substantially, and all of this required repairs. Second, the psychological atmosphere in the museum was positively foul.
- Was that the usual rough patch that comes from a change of management? Factions that grew up during that transition period and started feuding?
-No, it was something else. It would be more accurate to say that it was based on politics. The mood that prevailed on the streets came into the museum as well. And the people, instead of carrying on with the work of the museum, were constantly trying to figure out who was backing who, what direction the country was going, whose fault it was and what to do about it. Politics sparked quarrels everywhere.
- Was the staff really that politicized?
- Immeasurably so. It was the same thing that happened in the 20ís. The same conversations, like, ďI should be given this position, because Iím in line with the political landscape of that day.Ē ďAre you sure about that? Iíd keep quiet if I were you. What were you doing before the í91?Ē Politics, as it is practiced on the streets, came into the museum through the staff entrance, gave people a change to grind their own personal axes, take out their frustrations on someone else, work out their psychological complexes. That created a great deal of internal tension, which was unacceptable in a national museum, where the most important thing is stability and the steadfastness of tradition.
- Should museum workers ideally not be involved in politics?
- It isnít politics as such, itís the political struggle on the street, because that can be destructive for a museum. Its employees should embody a certain healthy conservatism. Regardless, we will always be involved in politics in one way or another. Iím referring to cultural politics, which we are obligated to affect to one extent or another. After all, the Hermitage is one of the symbols of Russia, and its condition mirrors that of the country as a whole. This means that one naturally winds up being involved in politics. The director of the Hermitage canít say, ďTo hell with your politics, Iím sick of you!Ē But when necessary, the director of the Hermitage ought to keep a certain distance from politics, not permit it to have a destructive effect on the museumís traditions, or exert influence that runs counter to the interests of culture.
- So, does that mean that, ultimately, the director of the Hermitage also has to be a politician?
- That seems excessive to me. He has to know how to manage the museum, to guide it, like a ship, turn its sails towards the right societal winds. But not be eager to play politics.
- How does it feel to know that you are the head custodian of priceless things? Can a person get used to that?
- Itís impossible to get used to the Hermitage. Inner agitation takes hold of everyone here. But when youíre also responsible for the place, when you have two telephones next to your bed that might ring at any moment with the news that, heaven forbid, thereís been a fire or a floodÖ but one also has to be prepared for an event like that, and itís impossible to get used to. When Iím facing various unpleasantness and my wife starts to worry about them, I say, ďWhat can I do, itís part of my job description.Ē
- In summer of 2006, when the press exploded with a sensational story of global proportions - more than 200 pieces of art had disappeared from the Hermitage, what did you experience? Was it a shock?
- No, it wasnít a shock, since we discovered the loss ourselves.
- Was there any hesitation about whether or not to announce it?
- Yes, there was some hesitation. After all, in principle we could have not announced it. Or we could have explained it, but not very conspicuously. There were similar thefts in other countries, even at major museums, and they didnít make a great deal of noise. There were some in Russian museums as well. But, first of all, I think that honesty is the best policy; we also make our problems and difficulties public ó the moment something happens, we call a press conference. Second, there was a great deal that was mysterious and incomprehensible about the theft. How could a person remove things he was trusted to guard from the museum? To remove more than two hundred items, one at a time; think of the nerves they must have had. And is it possible that no one from our museum was complicit in it, and in the world of antiques collectors, not a single soul knew that they were seeing goods that were stolen from the Hermitage? There was a sense that it couldnít be that simple, that there was an invisible contest underway; who will be the first to announce it? We were the first to announce it. Furthermore, before we announced it, we prepared all the materials necessary for every official that we were obligated to report the incident too would hear about it not from the police, not from the press, but from us.
- Did you inform the national government or just the Ministry of Culture?
- We informed everyone who must be informed after such an event. I brought the documents to Moscow on Friday and delivered them where they needed to go. I called the police on Monday morning, and also called a press conference.
- And did the flood of publications that came out the next day and didnít wane for three weeks shock you?
- Yes, that was something one might be shocked by. Many publications printed issue after issue with articles full of ill wishes, and, at times, even spiteful remarks. With unambiguous pathos, they would say ďIf government museums arenít able to ensure the safety of cultural treasures that are the very pride of the country, then we need to create private museums, they can handle the job betterĒ. In some places this line of thinking was espoused openly, in others it was somewhat masked, but that was the thrust of it. It isnít so simple. I said then and am willing to repeat now, what happened then looks like an attempt at raiding our museums. There isnít even very much state property left, but they see it as though what we have is a huge vista of opportunities for privatization.
- After what happened, were you able to improve how the Hermitage collection is protected?
- We have continued to do what we did before, but we have been able to concentrate our effort. A new addition to the storage area is being prepared. Now, finally, everyone understands how important these storage areas are. It seems to me that after this affair, it has become possible to increase the governmentís interest in the state not only of the Hermitage, but of all our countryís other museums as well. I would like to believe that have reached the end of many years of the government looking with disdain at what most people called ďtreasures.Ē They arenít treasures. They are our cultural inheritance, which is a hundred times more important. It is what gives us the right to rebirth. A museum is a way of bringing people back to life.
- Do you have favorite halls in the Hermitage that you go to by a spiritual attraction rather than your professional duty?
- In general, I tend to go to favorite halls in other museums. Itís almost impossible at the Hermitage, where I look at it from the directorís perspective, and notice things that have nothing to do with art.
- But do you sometimes feel the need to go to a particular hall?
- Itís a different hall every time.
- Depending on your mood?
- Well, maybe so.
- Could you tell us which places they are?
- No, I canít. The goes for my favorite artists as well. I have a few favorites, but I never say exactly who. I am the director of a state museum that belongs to the top three in the world, and no one should find my personal aesthetic predilections especially interesting.
- You have had to lead royal people and presidents around the Hermitage. What struck you about them? What kind of impression did they make on you?
- Iíve led a lot of people around the Hermitage. Well, what can I say? I learned, for instance, that American presidents arenít nearly as narrow-minded as Americans usually imagine them. They get ready for visits to a museum. Both Clinton and Bush had prepared, and it was noticeable. They were sincerely delighted and absorbed by what they saw. Clinton even came to a standstill in one of our halls, and his bodyguards whispered in my ear: ďWell, letís finish up, itís time for the president to leave.Ē I answered: ďIím sorry, gentlemen, but heís your president, and not mine. Of all our high-level guests, the only one who didnít take in the Hermitage was Saddam Hussein. He seemed tightly shut up in some thoughts of his own.
- Has the Hermitage learned how to make money?
- The Hermitage hasnít just learned how to make money. The Hermitage had learned the right way to make money. We have come to understand what we shouldnít make money on.
- And that is?
- Well, for example, it wouldnít do for someone to rent our space and hold an event there, letís say, celebrate his birthday in the Winter Palace.
- But why? Other museums rent out their halls for various presentations and parties.
- With its status and tradition, the Hermitage canít pay much attention to what is permissible for other museums. Iím responsible for the Hermitage, and I say that there is no place for that in our museum. Yes, we have a great deal of events; annual gala receptions, charitable campaignsÖBut all of those are our events, connected with the life of the Hermitage. Furthermore, we canít demand payment for the privilege of being exhibited in the Hermitage. I also believe that the state, as represented by the Hermitage, does not have the right to sell items from our collection.
- Americans do.
- The Americans who work at the National Gallery in Washington never sell anything. Others consider it admissible. But I take a negative view of that. As the director, I donít have the right to say, ďThese paintings are so bad, so unworthy of the Hermitage, that we have to sell them.Ē Everything that became part of the museum must remain there and be passed on to future generations. We can shake up our exhibition policy, decide that on a particular day we will show one piece and not another. But we donít have the moral right to get rid of anything. In his time, Nicholas I sold paintings from the Hermitage. As a result, to this day there are things that need to be returned, to be bought back. It is fortunate, at least, that much of it was sold within the borders of Russia, and has now returned to us. Furthermore, the Imperial and Soviet government sold a large quantity of items from the Hermitage collection. The results of these sales are significantly more saddening,
- Clearly, in your opinion, becoming focused on business, making money at the expense of culture is wrong. So, is putting the symbols of the Hermitage on bottles of Italian wine, or on Coca Cola products acceptable?
- Yes. The Hermitage itself produces that Italian wine, through an agreement with an Italian firm. We also used it at our reception. We also have ďHermitageĒ candies, and we also sell books and chocolates bearing the rules for behavior in the Hermitage that Catherine established down. All of this, taken together, is part of our marketing. When it comes to Coca ColaÖ Yes, we allow them to use images of the Hermitage on their bottles. We think that people should be reminded of the Hermitage in every way possible. The Hermitage is a brand, and we are responsible for promoting it. Furthermore, Coca Cola was the first, and, for a while, the only company that came to the Hermitage and asked what they could do for us. Today, the money from the sale of that series of bottles with the Hermitage on the label goes towards financing many of our projects.
- To what extent should the director of the Hermitage be a businessman, a manager?
- To precisely that extent that enables him to lead the museum effectively. I think that he is obligated to be about one third executive, and no more. First and foremost, he must be a scholar. That is the European tradition. I could not lead the Hermitage if I stopped giving lectures, writing articles and publishing books. The director of a museum is obligated to be an active participant in the world of art, so that his criteria and manner of making decisions can be based not on a mercantile calculation, although a certain amount of it is useful, but based on what is on the cultural agenda for Russia and the world.
- Does your scholarly baggage help you to be an effective manager or, on the other hand, does it hamper the process of making decisions, burden you with doubts and force you to act on reflex?
- It helps me very much. It makes everything that I do in my role as director multidimensional. Additionally, I do, after all, have quite extensive archeological experience. Archeology is a discipline, which, during the Soviet days, combined management, the search for funding, science and sneaky accounting. So there you have it, with my archeological experience, I find it easier to become accustomed to a market which, for all that, is supposed to be regulated somehow. By what? Well, by conscience, I suppose.