Mikhail Piotrovsky: “We live in an age of artificiality,
but museums give us a sense of authenticity”
In an interview with the Regions’ Club, Mikhail Piotrovsky, the Chairman of the Union of Museums in Russia and the Director of the Hermitage described how important the role of the governors is in the development of museum affairs, and why ethnographic and museum tourism must be under the control of the regional authorities, and explained why the classical museum is still relevant in our multimedia age.
- Mikhail Borisovich, to what extend is it possible for museums to develop without the support of the governmental authorities? What role should the governors play in that process?
- The development of museums without government is not possible anywhere, neither at the center, nor in the provinces, since otherwise museum work turns into show business, into a way to make money, and that is very destruction. That is why there absolutely must be support on both the federal and regional levels. The governors have a major role to play in this. Both museum and theatrical culture is developing in many regions, where the local leaders are interested in it. That’s why, at the Union of Museums in Russia, we regard cooperation with the governors very significant. When we organize an extramural exhibit, we ask several hundred questions about the museums’ readiness to accept it, and we must receive positive answers to them, and we are also interested in the governor’s readiness to give the event special status and visit the exhibit personally. While traveling around the country, I meet with many governors and almost always find them supportive. In reality, museum work has already survived the most difficult period, and now the role of museums in the regions has grown significantly.
- In September of last year at the meeting of the presidium of the Union of Museums in Russia in Khabarovsk, you spoke about the “cultural uprooting” of the Far East. Where exactly does it manifest itself: in the lack of opportunities to expand the collections of local museums, the fact that new forms of communication with the viewers are poorly developed? In general, is this only the case in the Far East, or in the entire country beyond the two capitals?
- This problem effects all of Russia, including our capitals. It is so difficult and expensive to travel in our country, even between Moscow and Petersburg, although during the Soviet times it was possible to travel freely to Leningrad from Moscow to attend an exhibit. That is now returning a little bit, with people traveling for the sake of cultural events, rather than cultural events trying to chase down the public. But there are many organizational questions. There is, of course, the well-known story of how we sent a painting that we had donated to Khabarovsk to Italy, and then there were issues with returning it. We had to rent an entire airplane, since it would have been impossible to deliver it properly by rail. Today it is easier for us to transport a painting to China or Japan than to Khabarovsk. And one of the solutions is the development of museums in the regions. It isn’t only in Petersburg and Moscow that one can find beautiful museums; for example, there is the excellent museum of local history in the city of Khabarovsk. We have to periodically remind ourselves that the Far East and Siberia are Russian, and the most important signs of that are their churches and museums.
- The heads of many Russian regions are trying to promote their own archeological and ethnographic tourist projects. What is your opinion of these initiatives, and is it worth expecting results from these projects, considering the condition of the infrastructure in the regions?
- These projects are very important, but they must be implemented under the control and trusteeship of the museum community, and not business. The most important thing is that the residents of a given region feel that they have a stake in its history. We must not forget that pure moneymaking is what happened in Egypt, where tourism perverted the country, and now radical people will demonstrate against tourism, against “Baksheesh civilization”. We must not use monuments so that someone can create a business, but rather use business to make sure that our monuments are in good condition.
- You have led major archeological digs in your time: how would you characterize the situation in that area? How actively is archeological research being conducted in contemporary Russia? Are there some archeological sites that you are concerned about?
- After a long period of inactivity, expeditions have begun again, although not on the scale that was normal in the Soviet days. But we have a major problem; so-called “black archeologists”, people without permission, without specialized education or methodology that are digging for “treasure”. It all began in the Black Sea region, there are a lot of “black archeologists” in the black earth region, and now it has moved into Siberia. In Tuva, it is already necessary to guard excavations from them. We need to apply force and authority here. We have been struggling to create a security organization that could protect archeological monuments for a long time now.
Another issue is the exaggeration sensations and overestimations that have been made of some archeological discoveries. There is no reason to say that all of human history started in that spot and that “the Sumerians are descended from us”. This issue is being resolved with the participation of the museum community. The criteria here are good taste and museum professionals’ experience. People who work with ancient objects every day have an innate sense of history; they know the truth when they see it…
- Why, in your opinion, is it important to preserve “the embodiments of history” in the form of museum pieces?
- The classical museum is not receding into the past; it is distinguished from cinema, theater and other virtual objects by the fact that it is centered on an authentic object; it might be something truly ancient or a newspaper from the 1960’s, but it’s an authentic object, that has an energy all its own. There exist many ways to help you perceive that energy. But there must be an object, even if it’s surrounded by four movie auditoriums. We live in a virtual age, but almost everything disappears at the moment you turn off the electricity. People go to museums even though they could see the paintings on their computer screens. That’s the mystical quality that museums have. We live in an age of artificiality, but the artificiality is all outside, and museums give us a sense of authenticity.
Mikhail Piotrovsky was interviewed by Alexey Birsky