Online conference on the web site of the newspaper
18 June 2004
- How many items are on the Hermitageís books today? What proportion
of them of them are available for viewing and how many in the stores?
In his TV programme The Moment of Truth, Andrei Karaulov made an accusation
against you personally, claiming that 220,000 particularly valuable items
have disappeared from the museum. During a selective check of 100 exhibits,
only five were found. Could you comment on this fact. Thank you.
- Nonsense of various kinds has repeatedly been said about the Hermitage
collections. It has been checked by the Public Prosecutorís Office; thereís
nothing to it. The cause of it is the accusersí profound failure to inform
themselves. The Hermitage has 3 million items. At the moment we display
roughly 5%. A museum of the same kind as the Hermitage will display 10%.
After reconstruction we will be able to show 20%. In museums collections
are assembled, stored, restored and exhibited. In universal museums the
percentage is always at that level and thatís how it should be. There
is a problem of access to the exposition. We need to arrange things to
make it possible to show this or that item. As for the accusations that
part of the museum items have disappeared, itís nothing of the kind. A
museum is a living organism with a repository. A museum is not a warehouse;
the things we keep are unique. When a curator dies, his items cannot be
passed over to someone else for a time. The person responsible should
know all the items that are being kept: books, bronze artefacts, toys.
For a time those things are kept under seal in our stores. There is constant
monitoring of the items. They are not in circulation in the museum and
therefore they need to be checked up on. At some particular moment some
things cannot be found straight away; the normal process is going on.
Selective checks have not discovered items missing from the Hermitage.
Working from lists itís always possible to find everything. A check of
that sort was carried out for the Prosecutorís Office and the Public Audit
Chamber. All the selective checks showed that everything was fine. Sometimes
museums are accused of substituting paintings for the real ones, but that
arises out of ignorance. Only a museum outsider can imagine that a painting
could be replaced. If we are talking about the things that are on temporary
display that is also a sign of ignorance. Everything is where it should
- Mikhail Borisovich, whatís your attitude to the privatization of
the national heritage (architectural monuments and museums)? What do museum
workers think of this idea of the governmentís? What can you say about
it as president of the Union of Museums of Russia? Thank you.
- Iím not a businessman, I am a cultural worker. I think that we need
precisely devised legislation. The question of privatizing cultural monuments
should arise only as one of the means of preserving our cultural heritage.
There cannot be any ďgeneralizationsĒ here - we need to have a precise
understanding of the condition of a particular monument and of the state
of the legislation. On the one hand, we need scrupulously worked out parameters,
on the other hand, when the privatization of this or that monument is
being discussed there should be alternatives. I do not consider the idea
of privatizing monuments a panacea, but I donít find it unacceptable either.
I am against the hullabaloo over the subject though.
- Medicine in this country was always good on account of its conservatism.
Donít you think that Russian culture has lost that splendid quality?
- I donít think that Russian culture has lost that splendid quality.
I am a representative of two conservative professions at once - a historian
and a museum worker. Without conservatism the evolution of museums is
- One of the subjects announced for your conference is the interrelations
between the museum and the authorities. Can you please tell us what portraits
hang in your office today. I recall that earlier, in 2000, you had a woven
portrait of Catherine the Great in an oval frame hanging behind you and
a few photographic portraits besides, including Queen Elizabeth of England,
the Danish Prince and the directors of major world museums. There wasnít
a portrait of the President of Russia. Has he appeared in the four years
since? And if so, why?
- Yes and no. Youíre right in saying that behind my back, where itís
usual to hang portraits, where portraits of peopleís superiors are supposed
to be, I have a tapestry of Empress Catherine of Russia. There are portraits
that were made as diplomatic gifts in the form of photographs. They are
not on the wall, though, but standing on the desk. There are indeed pictures
of the Queen of England there, and the Queen of Spain. There is also a
portrait of the President of Russia. He often comes to the Hermitage as
a guest. My office also contains a large and pleasant selection of faces.
- Who today is the legal owner of the Bremen Collection, or the Baldin
Collection as it is also called, that was on the Hermitage books for several
years? How does this collection accord with the Law on Displaced Cultural
Valuables? What fate now awaits it? Where is it now? Do you agree with
Mr Shvydko, the former Minister of Culture, that Russia should hand it
over to Germany? Thank you.
- "Bremen Collection" is a very broad term. It was plundered
in Germany. Many museums around the world have some works from it. The
Soviet officer Baldin brought part of this collection to Russia on his
own initiative and in doing so saved it from being plundered. Some time
later he handed the part of the collection that he brought out to the
Shchusev Museum. Its legal status is debatable: it was not removed by
the decision of a state in accordance with legislation, but it was handed
to a state museum. If it was removed by the state, then the state leads
the discussion. For a time it was in Baldinís own keeping, then he passed
it to the Shchusev Museum, then on to the Hermitage. No-one now remembers
that the Hermitage had several exhibitions and collections of drawings
and paintings from this collection. On the basis of the Law on Displaced
Valuables, the Baldin part of the Bremen Collection was in the Hermitage,
then at the request of the Ministry of Culture it was removed from the
Hermitageís permanent keeping and transferred to the Ministry of Culture,
which is where it is now. There is one more aspect to this. At the level
of museum workers negotiations were conducted with Germany, with the Kunsthalle
in Bremen: Russia will return the Baldin collection that is in our possession,
but we will keep twenty works from it, specifically nineteenth drawings
and one Goya painting. That would be a good agreement. As compensation
in accordance with the law on compensatory restitution, immediately after
the war the USSR removed valuables, some of which were returned to Germany
as early as the 1950s as a gesture of good will. The new Russia might
also hand over something of what was removed from Germany, but that, I
stress, would be a gesture of good will and there should be no pressure
here. In the case of the Baldin Collection, I think an exchange should
be made: part goes back to Germany and part stays in Russia.
- Mikhail Borisovich, is there any likelihood that the nine imperial
Faberge eggs will be included in the Hermitage collection? How do you
see the further fate of those Easter eggs made by the famous jeweller?
- There is no particular probability that this collection will be
included in the Hermitage display. But putting the question like that
may lead to the eggs leaving Russia altogether. The media are constantly
stating that the Hermitage and other museums are fighting over them. Their
owner will immediately take fright and immediately get them out of the
way. I made a written suggestion to Mr Vekselburg that a separate Faberge
museum be created. In St Petersburg or elsewhere. A training school for
jewellers could be created there, a private museum with his name too.
People collected these Easter eggs from various places. This is just one
of those instances when a private museum may be created so as not to allow
these unique pieces to pass into private hands.
- Mikhail Borisovich, everyone knows you not just as director of the
Hermitage, but also as a prominent scholar, an Orientalist and Arabist,
who has devoted many years to the study of ancient monuments in the Middle
East. In that context, please tell us what condition the very ancient
monuments in Iraq are in today, a year and three months after the American
invasion, and especially on of the worldís most ancient cities, Babylon.
And what funds should be sent to Iraq and by whom to make good the damage?
Is the worldwide scholarly community putting this matter to the USA? Thank
- I am involved with questions about Iraq, its cultural treasures.
I am a member of the UNESCO committee. We met recently to discuss the
situation in Iraq. The general situation is this: of the roughly 14,000
items that were looted from the museums, 7,000 have been found. Some were
intercepted in the hands of dealers in antiquities, some in the hands
of the looters. Sadly a considerable proportion are in a dreadful state;
they all need restoration. Specialists, Russians among them, will help
with the restoration and train Iraqi restorers. The picture in Iraq is
terrible. Dozens of kilometres riddled with holes. The local tribes are
taking things out of those holes. As for Babylon, there things are not
so bad. Babylon was practically unaffected. Now it is sealed off by troops
and under guard. The same picture of destruction can be seen in Afghanistan.
The occupation forces are not protecting cultural treasures. They donít
have the strength or the time. Thatís trifles in comparison with what
people are trying to restore after they themselves forced their way into
Iraq. Still sooner or later Iraq will be restored, and everyone will participate
in the process, first and foremost the Americans. And we need to find
a niche where we can be of use to them and to science. An archaeological
expedition had been working in Iraq for many years. All their documentation
got burnt. All that needs to be replaced.
- In what countries around the world have you opened branches of the
Hermitage? How long have you been engaged in this form of collaboration?
What does it give the Hermitage in commercial and cultural terms?
- We are opening branches in a few countries. We have exhibition centres.
There is nothing permanent. We take our exhibitions in and out. We have
centres like that in London, Las Vegas and Amsterdam, and are planning
to open the same kind of centre in Kazan. For us they are interchangeable.
London or Kazan, it makes no difference to us: we have the same high requirements
in respect of insurance, transportation and respect for Hermitage exhibitions
both within Russia and abroad. The important thing for the Hermitage is
to make our collection as open as possible. From a philosophical viewpoint
it is a sort of cultural attack. Such a practice is unique among Russian
museums, and those abroad too. On the other hand, all this should not
result in losses. But it is different in each place. We receive a part
of that income, but not always. In London the Rooms are not very big,
and there we canít manage without a sponsor. But we do find sponsors there,
in Britain. In Las Vegas itís the only centre. People are constantly ďburyingĒ
it, but itís thriving. When we opened a museum in Las Vegas there were
many eyebrows raised, not just in Russia: what a museum like that in Las
Vegas? A year later many people started bringing their exhibitions there.
Art needs to be taken to the masses. In Amsterdam we will get one euro
from every ticket. Thereís a spirit of Peter the Greatís time there, a
love of St Petersburg and the Hermitage. Childrenís lessons are already
being held there. Thereís going to be a library and an information centre.
It wonít just be a branch of the Hermitage. I would put it this way: if
we have consulates in other European cities, in Amsterdam itís an embassy.
In Kazan the centre will be supported financially by the government of
Tatarstan and the Kazan municipal authorities. Our branch there will open
for the millennium of Kazan.
- There are rumours that the monument to the victims of the revolution
set up on the Field of Mars will be dismantled and removed to the outskirts
of St Petersburg. Is that true?
- I read that as well, but I think those plans are wholly unrealistic.
At one time there was an idea to make a monument to the Victims of the
Revolution on Palace Square. That was in 1917. Fortunately that didnít
happen. As for the monument on the Field of Mars, it is dedicated to the
victims of the February Revolution, to all the victims. And I would put
the stress on that. Monuments shouldnít be destroyed or removed elsewhere.
- How are Hermitage exhibits that are taken abroad for exhibitions
protected against seizure? I recall the Hermitage being threatened with
the seizure of exhibits a few times. For example, it is widely known that
in the summer of 2003 as a result of court action by the French Association
of the Holders of Tsarist Bonds bailiffs made an inventory of works of
art from the Hermitage collection then on display at Les Invalides in
Paris with the aim of preventing their removal from France on time.
- The exhibition was in the cathedral of Les Invalides. The Association
of the Holders of Tsarist Bonds had no grounds to lay claim to those items,
but it created a stir. They had no grounds for the court action. The problem
of the seizure of exhibits is a real one and it affects not only Russia,
but the whole world. In certain countries there is legislation under which
the state receiving this or that exhibition guarantees its safety. Britain
has no such law and cannot as the courts there are independent of the
state. We know that and we donít send things there. Because thereís no
guarantee of getting them back on time. We have a system that is already
honed; the whole world learns from our system.
- Where does the Hermitage get the money to live from today? From
the state like the Louvre or does it earn its own "daily bread"
by commercial activities, including exhibitions abroad? Thank you.
- The Louvre is now beginning to live like the Hermitage. France is
at the moment the most Socialist country. Formerly all their income was
taken off them, but the state gave a great deal. Today the Hermitage gets
half its funding in subsidies from the state and half we earn ourselves.
Last year we had an income of 30 million dollars. Our income comes from
the sale of tickets, special services, licensing and similar activities;
the second half of the income comes from the organization of exhibitions
abroad. Often charitable contributions go towards the purchase of exhibits.
We are not in a position to buy great masterpieces at auction. Nevertheless,
we spend half a million dollars of what the Hermitage earns on acquisitions.
We attract sponsors, Russian and foreign. Recently we bought a fan made
to mark the coronation of Paul I. Recently we received as a gift a little
gold flask with rubies found in Sarmatian archaeological excavations and
a portrait of Napoleon that was given to Speransky during the French Emperorís
meeting with Emperor Alexander in Erfurt. We will put all that on display.
We manage to find money.
We apologise for not having time to answer all your interesting questions.
We - museums in general - have been through a fairly difficult time, but
I hope thatís over now. In that period we have managed to show that we
have become leaders in the museum movement, to become leaders in the preservation
of the national heritage and of humanity generally. The museum is the
most democratic institution - anyone can come here, dilettante, snob or
professional. Today we can show our genuine treasures in the virtual world,
nonetheless the role of the real-life museum in contemporary society continues
to grow. And that is gratifying. The museum is a symbol of the nation
and an example of the possibility of worldwide collaboration, pure and
transparent collaboration. If museums are open and active across the world,
then peopleís interaction at the cultural level will produce those global
ties that will preserve the world literally and metaphorically. Thank