"Museums keep people from turning into plants"
A museum is a governmental function for preserving national memory, which cultivates a sense of one's own historical merits. It truly is our cultural heritage. This is the position held by Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the State Hermitage Museum and corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
– Mikhail Borisovich, have you ever had to hear or read that you are an opponent of cultural modernization? Why?
– I can't oppose something thatís already obvious – the development of the cultural process cannot be stopped. However, I do see a problem in the fact that, more and more often, we hear that culture is a resource for modernization. I would ask people to remember that modernization is merely a part of culture, and not the other way around. Things have already been the other way around in Russia. And more than once, for that matter. Two intellectuals and two countrymen, Nikolai Karamzin who set up Alexander Iís enlightenment-style modernization and Lenin, who laid the groundwork for modernization by hook or by crook, have returned from Europe at various times with opposing sorts of intellectual ammunition. Karamzin reached the notion of patiently teaching those who had power to be responsible for it and use it effectively, while Lenin reached the notion that power must be seized at any prize. Today, we face a similar crossroads and must choose our path to modernization. I am against Leninís model of modernizing culture.
– In your opinion, does Russian society have a greater chance of finally devolving, or will it be necessary to live through another way of revolutions?
– World history indicates that there are two approaches to modernizing society: one is aimed at catching up, one – at exploration. Thus far, Russia has always chosen or devolved into the type aimed at catching up. This model, as our history teaches us, often destroys cultural heritage and breaks the connections between generations. You don't exactly have to be a genius to see that today we have once more wound up in the roll of those trying to catch up.
– That is, we are doomed to buy up or steal old technology and learn from other people's mistakes, multiplying our own as we go, all for the sake of being latecomers who fit ourselves into a changing world?
– One who is catching up is fated to try and fit in; one who is searching is fated to create. Thatís why I say that we are at a fork in the road, that we have a chance at the second kind of modernization. To make sure we don't miss it, we have to set priorities in good faith. We can't do that yet. That is why people are often in a state of nervous situations; perhaps we feel resentment within ourselves more often than the situation warrants. In many ways, culture is useful here for reducing the emergence of stress. Thatís one point. Secondly, we live in an age of universal mistrust. No one believes anyone. We have developed that sort of culture, if you will, a culture of universal mistrust and resentment. The government doesnít trust us, and we donít trust the government. Unfortunately, mutual mistrust has become as inextricable a part of our society as corruption. We don't have an a priori presumption of innocence. Our relationships are shaped by a presumption of guilt. For example, when a journalist comes to the Hermitage, he is, first and foremost, serving or expressing somebodyís interests. I'm not even talking about investigators, the police and the whole chain of business or production relationships. We always see the bad in everything first. It's only afterwards that we have to prove to ourselves that everything is at least alright. But it's something wrong with us! Unfortunately, that problem within us is part of how we perceive our environment. We canít brush it aside. It forms or affects the way we perceive the world today. We just have to live with it, and culture, in the broad sense, makes it possible for us not to fall into despondency or despair. Under these circumstances, it is precisely culture that must reaffirm that two times two is four, not five or nanofive.
– So it turns out that culture is a kind of therapy for the wasteland in our heads. But then how can we grow up to the point that we're ready for independent exploration?
– Thatís the second stage of modernization; exploratory modernization, when art and culture create not just a set of rules that people must live by, but an atmosphere that gives rise to epiphanies and inspiration. Thatís when a new modernizing quality appears: innovation. That's when we begin not to catch up or overtake others, but explore. That's the threshold of breakthrough in civilization.
– Are there examples of that in Russian history?
– A great many. My example... perhaps it isnít the most precise, but... When the USSR had to create an atomic bomb, it become clear that it had already been created or stolen by others, but all possible resources were thrown into modernization: science, espionage, diplomacy, financial resources; we caught up or stole what we needed. However, when it become necessary to create the hydrogen bomb, Andrei Sakharov did it in a stroke of genius. As history and his further life and work indicate, that was breakthrough of the culture in which he was raised. You can respect what he did or loathe it, from the hydrogen bomb to his activities as a human rights activist, but it was an example of a new quality born from the accumulation of culture.
– Why do you consider a museum such an accumulation of national culture? Donít you have a personal and corporate interest in it, when you speak about how they have a need for modernization?
– A museum is a very important institution that preserves memory. Itís all very simple: while a person remembers, he is living; when he doesn't remember, he is a plant. Museums keep people from turning into plants. There's something unjust about how when we talk about a person's place in the economy, we talk about “branches” of the economy, while what museums do is called a service. But it isnít a service; it is a governmental function for preserving national memory which teaches people and helps them to grow. First and foremost, a museum cultivates a sense of one's own historical merits. It truly is our cultural heritage. We do, after all, have a very rich and complex history. Its pages are intermittently black, white, red and grey. We have to learn not to rewrite, falsify or efface our history, but rather accept it as it was and is, without dramatizing it. That, if you like, is our national idea.
– Russia has been unable to formulate that national idea for several decades, yet you suggest that everything really is that simple?
– Perhaps it isnít worth artificially formulating anything at all? Perhaps, we should start by understanding the formulation and postulates of those who came before us and modernize them in our new reality?
Nothing comes from nothing, after all. In the same conditions of oncoming reforms, for example, a museum can acquire another significance, condition and quality, and even correct the shortcomings of those abrupt reforms. They also provide a moderating influence, both for possible changes and for governmental functions, to make people's lives more or less normal or adequate for changing circumstances. Take the educational reform and the introduction of Unified State Examination. Unified State Examination as a phenomenon made higher education much more accessible for a great number of people and broke up a veritable assembly line of corruption, yet at the same time the reform averaged the level of education and reduced its quality. People who want to grow, both intellectually and professionally, need something more than average. For people of that sort, museums take on greater significance. For instance, we recently honoured the schoolchildren and university students who won our contest named after Nikolai Karamzin. There are a lot of these contests and Olympiads now, and they are very important; they are one of the devices for promoting social mobility that help both the growth of the individual and the abolition of the caste-like structure and corporate moroseness of contemporary society, the formation of civil society. Museums offer opportunities of this sort, in addition to a particular mood and an educational function. Or today, for example, weíre talking about the urgent need for military reform, yet we all know that the majority of the people regard the army as an onerous obligation; it wasn't like that in Tsarist Russia. Why? It's all because reforms lead to the army losing its function as a component part of our culture. An officerís honour, pride in the army, the status of being an officer; all of that disappears and dissolves in the popular consciousness; but it is precisely this that museums can preserve and develop. We are currently conducting negotiations with the Ministry of Defence about inclusion of military museums in the modernization of the museum system. In this way we can and must restore and return that which has been lost in the contemporary military culture and way of life.
A museum, in my view, can become the backbone of a city. For example, in Ulyanovsk it was possible to save the centre, with its wooden architecture, from demolition. Furthermore, this was done with the help of the consistent policy of the municipal museums, which gave to wooden architecture a new quality and function. It was thanks to this factor that the spirit of Ulyanovsk's historical centre has been preserved.
– But that is a local example and a local success – as a whole, Ulyanovsk has been basically abolished as a historical city by reconstructions, with a revolutionary way of understanding things. Moscow is following the same path. Can Saint Petersburg retain its right to an evolutionary understanding of how to reconstruct the cityís architectural character?
– This question has led to what I would call cultural battle. They bring us back to a crossroads, to a choice of approaches to modernization. We must admit that a significant part of society does not see or does not want to see the beauty of the historical past. There are many factors that cause this: people are tired of poverty and buildings in poor conditions. It's better to reject dilapidated monuments and build new ones. I once asked a foreign guest “what has to be done to preserve our cultural heritage?” His answer was quite simple, “first of all, you have to want to preserve it”. Rich people, however, don't want to live here and prefer to move abroad or to homes outside the city, behind a fence, behind a security detail, in elite concentration camps with everything they entail. Protected by fences and money they live in a different country and have simply shaken off “this country.” Their children donít live here, they study “over there,” while the parents sit in “this country” based on the principle of going where the profit is. Communist upbringing gives the fruit of culture to universal resentment: no one has roots, the past is not important, the future is incomprehensible; this is why some of the new rich have the psychology of young wolves: what's important is now. An important bureaucrat arrived from Paris and waxed euphoric about how “I lived in a beautiful old hotel; it was so difficult to put an elevator in there that youíd imagine it was in a space for a spiral staircase. You could just barley fit one person and his things in there. That's really something, eh?” That same person can come back here and demolish everything of his own. And he isnít an enemy. This is the mentality of a culture that is striving to catch up. The story of the Okhta Tower in Saint Petersburg indicates that it is changing, albeit slowly. From my point of view itís unforgivably slow, but...
– But can societyís mentality really develop or change faster than the development of its elite?
– When it comes to that issue, an instructive story happened at the Hermitage with the Swedes. For the 300-year anniversary of the Battle of Poltava, the Hermitage came up with the idea for a joint international exhibit. We were initially concerned that the Swedes wouldnít agree to do an exhibit about their defeat. Fortunately, we were mistaken. If youíll pardon my lack of modesty, it worked out beautifully, both here and in Stockholm. Aside from tremendously valuable documents, the Swedes brought us unique exhibit pieces: the saddle and uniform of Charles XII. For us, this is an example of how to study the general history of oneís victories and defeats. Poltava taught them not to fight, but rather to work hard and create in order to flourish. We, the victors, on the other hand, continued to fight, eventually wrecking our economy. Through their past, the Swedes were able to reorient their thinking. Both the elite and the simple people. I think that this process can be both parallel and heterogeneous. The Swedes took their defeat as a lesson and used it to develop a sense of their own historical merits and of multicultural consensus with their neighbours; this, by the way, in an era when people are accustomed to bury multiculturalism.
– Yet it is rather difficult to deny the fact that internationalism has been replaced by a growing nationalism in our society.
– We, like the Swedes and other Europeans, have a lot of issues with our neighbours, but the phrase “friendship of the people” is still better, and in Russia it justifies itself when compared to multiculturalism. It isnít that we have a special pass to follow, but precisely in the area of ethnic relations Russians have time-tested recipes for interethnic consensus which took centuries to develop and have been working for centuries. Karamzin embodied one of these recipes, both with his biography and his scientific heritage. His family came from noble origins, with Tatar roots from the Kara-Murza clan. Karamzin created not simply a national history, but a national consciousness, the Russian imperial mentality. In Nikolai Karamzinís interpretation, imperial doesnít mean oppression, it means uniting many different peoples and nationalities. This is also our cultural and historical heritage and Russiaís contribution to the development of civilization which we can and must take pride in. This is our history. Although someone might find it uncomfortable to live in a historical building and monument, it is also an object and the continuity of centuries and that is our history, not “we'll tear it down to the foundations, and then...”
– Like the Hermitage cats? When they stroll about the Hermitage like they own the place, and there seem to be more and more of them; is that an object of pride for the Hermitage or is it true that the government officials would like to “tear them down?”
– The story of the cats started during Perestroika. You remember how times got hard; itís just how some people are: they started to throw their pets out into the street. I have to mention that cats have always lived in the Hermitage; they don't so much catch as scare away the mice. So, you see, they serve a necessary function for the Hermitage. Then people began to dump a frightening number of them here. They ran wild. We tried to train them, put them up in our basement and eventually even appointed a feline press secretary. We collect money for our cats through charitable organization. We donít even have as many cats as people imagine; there are just 50. If we ever wind up with more than that, weíve worked out an entire ceremony for giving them up into good hands. Or we resettle the “new arrivals” in our storage area. In general, itís an elaborate PR stunt. Weíre satisfied with it, it cultivates kindness in people. In the beginning, we had to deal with some negative tendencies, even within our own group. “The basement smells like cats,” was a common complaint among people who wanted to get rid of them. Eventually, people thawed and now they are even proud of the Hermitage cats as an attraction. Children and street artists alike come to draw them...
– Have you had to hear that the current system of discounted Hermitage tickets provokes dissatisfaction among ordinary visitors, who have to repurchase discount tickets at two or three times their price to avoid standing in line?
– I don't understand why it makes people so angry that we have a lot of discounts for citizens. The general price for a ticket to the Hermitage is 400 roubles, or 10 euros. This is normal for a museum of this kind. Children, students and pensioners visit us for free and Russian citizens pay 100 roubles for admission. All of these discounts come out of our own pocket. We have no government discounts; this is our own social programme. I would say that it is an achievement that doesn't make certain people happy at all. Two things offend people. Half of them are upset that they have to present a document that proves they are a Russian citizen. They claim that this humiliates Russians in front of foreigners. I sincerely donít understand why? I know that it isnít easy for everyone to pay 400 roubles for a ticket, which they also have to stand in line for. We can afford to give our citizens a discount. The line humiliates them? Then why doesnít the line at the Louvre, at Italian, British or American museums humiliate them?
– I can only share my own experience: people are bothered by scalpers that re-sell discounted 100 roubles tickets for five or six times that price.
– Yes, I know that people that have stood in line to buy tickets for 100 roubles will sell them at the back under of it for 600. For some reason, they donít experience that as a humiliation, but to themselves and those who buy the tickets they speculate in. Combating this speculation is a job for law enforcement agencies, but we donít want to eliminate our discounts. Itís quite the opposite, we are proud that we can give free admission to students, pensioners and children, and offer a discount to disadvantaged Russians.
– What is your opinion about how some museums in Great Britain, Germany and the Netherlands remain free on principle?
– Thatís most likely an Anglo-Saxon tradition. Throughout the countries of Southern Europe people feel that if a museum offers free admission, it has nothing to show people. “If it costs something, itís better” this is an important aspect of human psychology that defines many aesthetic values. In Russia, alas, the idea of a free ride is almost considered the norm, especially when it comes to culture. People seem to say “let the government pay for a museum and then weíll go there”. No, they wonít. This has been tested hundreds of times. Even though talent, social investment and intense human labour are put into culture. I wonít hide it, in my opinion, the Anglo-Saxons are right, museums should be free, but for that to happen, society has to mature and the government has to grow up. In general, that is my secret ambition, a free museum without any tickets; but I understand that it probably will never become a reality.