Internet meeting with Mikhail Borisovich Piotrovsky
in the Hermitage's CafeMax
On 6 December 2004
- Would you please comment on the 250th anniversary of the Hermitage
10 years from now. You are busy preparing for this event, aren't you?
What precisely is being done?
- Ten years is not much time. We are not so much getting ready for
this encounter as we are slowly moving towards this date. By the 250th
we hope to complete the work on the General Staff complex and the storage
facility of the Hermitage.
- I haven't been in the Hermitage for some time. I would really like
to visit the museum, but I think it is not a useful way to spend my time
if I am seeing it alone, without a guided tour. After all, each exhibit
item has its own history... Yet it is boring to listen to old-style tour
guides. My question is: do you have any guides who take people around
the museum and talk in an unconstrained manner, using conversational language
and adding a touch of humor, some historical anecdotes. In that case I
would like to come back again. If there are such guides, advise me whom
to go to.
- We have some remarkable guides in the Hermitage, but they don't
tell jokes the way your average tour guide might. Moreover though the
guides may be splendid, the fact is you don't need to be taken around
the Hermitage by a guide. What you need to do is visit the museum often
and look closely, then go out and buy some books and read in them about
our exhibits, after which you return to them once again. This is the best
- Dr Piotrovsky, please tell us what prompted you to acquire Malevich's
Black Square? Why did you think it was essential for the Hermitage to
have this very painting?
-Malevich's Black Square is not only a masterpiece of world
art but a symbolic painting, a defining moment. It is a culmination of
world painting, as it were. Everything is emptiness and there is nothing
more. At the Hermitage Black Square is at the far end of a line
of artwork that begins with the Fayum Portrait, our oldest work, and ends
with the last and newest - Black Square. Additionally, it is an
icon of the 20th century. We have the most emblematic paintings of the
20th century: Kandinsky's Composition Number 6, The Dance
and Music by Matisse, and Black Square by Malevich. You
might say that in principle these paintings chart the path of art in the
- Dear Mr Piotrovsky, I ask you please to suggest to me how best to
sell a treasured family possession of my deceased husband, Professor G.V.
Krylov: an old edition of the three-volume work The Travels of the Sovereign
Emperor Nicholas II in the Orient, published during the years 1893, 1895
- Unfortunately, I cannot advise you. The Hermitage has several copies
of this work and therefore we cannot buy it, but I think you can find
bookstores which will sell it for you at a very good price.
- This year you traveled a great deal around Russia. What place did
you like most of all? Are you planning to continue making exhibitions
in Siberia and other regions?
- First, let me say that I liked Irkutsk most of all. Second, we have
now completed the Siberian series and we are preparing a series of exhibitions
in the South of Russia.
- Will the Great Hermitage project be completed in time for the 250th
anniversary of the museum?
- I think that the main parameters of the Great Hermitage project
will be finished in time for the jubilee, but we don't know how the financing
of the project will develop over the course of these 10 coming years.
- Are you planning to open youth centers in cities around Russia?
- We are not planning to open youth centers, but we are opening exhibition
centers in various places. Next year we will open an exhibition center
in Kazan and this will be the first such Hermitage center in Russia. Up
to now, we set up these centers in Las Vegas, London and Amsterdam.
- Dear Mr Piotrovsky, one of the Moscow newspapers published an article
saying that there are many cats living in the Hermitage. How do you personally
feel about that? Can't these animals do damage to the museum exhibits?
How do visitors to the museum feel about it?
- As a general rule, animals do less damage to the museum exhibits
than people do. But the cats have no contact with the exhibits. They.live
in the courtyards and in the basements, and visitors hardly see them.
It is the museum staff who feed them. Their presence encourages kindness
on the part of museum employees.
- Dear Mr Piotrovsky, I send my greetings. Please tell me what are
Hermitage centers? how many of them are there? and are they only in Russia
or also around the world? What do you exhibit in these centers? Thank
- We change the exhibitions in these centers every 6 months. At present
we have a joint exhibition in Las Vegas with the Guggenheim Museum and
the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna. It is called The Pursuit of
Pleasure. In London there is now an an exhibition devoted to the avant-garde
in porcelain as seen in the Hermitage collection, while in Amsterdam we
have an exhibition called Nicholas and Alexandra.
- Dear Mr. Piotrovsky, I learned on the internet that the Hermitage
has received schoolchildren from Beslan. On whose initiative did this
trip take place and what did they see in St Petersburg?
- The initiative came from the staff of the Hermitage. We were substantially
assisted by the Interros Holding Company, our main partner. We tried to
show them a lot of things but the main idea was to use art as a method
of therapy. The idea was not merely to entertain them but to relieve their
emotional stress with the help of art. And this really does work, as you
may know. We showed them the Hermitage, the Russian Museum and our suburban
palaces. Special doctors and psychologists worked with them. That is what
their treatment was like. Of course, they also saw all of Petersburg.
- Is the Hermitage ready to accept Potanin Foundation fellowhip winners
- The Hermitage is ready to employ people who fill our needs whether
they are Potanin Foundation fellowhip winners or not. These issues are
not connected, although of course winners of the Potanin Foundation fellowships
are, as a rule, sharp-witted, so they do have good chances.
- Why is it that the toilets in the Hermitage are in need of improvement?
- Irina, I cannot comment on the ladies' facilities, because I only
visit the gents' toilets. I think they don't need a great deal of improvement,
since they are quite all right. They have been especially fitted the way
they are with a view to making it difficult to unscrew fixtures and vandalize
them. They are idiot-proof. After all, visitors try to remove this or
that all the time. So I think our toilets are OK, at least the ones designated
- In which countries of the world have branches of the Hermitage
been opened? Since when have you been practicing this form of cooperation?
What does it bring to the Hermitage commercially and at the cultural level?
- These are not branches. Rather they are exhibition centers. We do
not send exhibits there permanently. Instead the items are loaned out
for periods of 6 months, after which they are brought back to the Hermitage.
We have been doing this for about 5 years now. It has brought enormous
benefit to the Hermitage at the strategic, "ideological" level.
The presence of our exhibition centers in such cultural centers as London
and Amsterdam brings cultural policy closer to people. In commercial terms
we receive part of the income from all these centers, though not a great
deal. Approximately one Euro, one cent in London and Amsterdam per visitor.
The exhibition costs are covered by contributions of sponsors in these
countries. The Hermitage gets some money from the proceeds and does not
have to spend any of its own money.
- Dear Professor Piotrovsky, what are the tasks you have set for
the museum in 2006? What are your goals?
- My personal goals are the same as the museum's: we have decided
to undertake a restoration of the halls of French art, to complete the
restoration of the galleries of Antique painting, to launch a huge exhibition
devoted to Alexander I which will be the main exhibition of the year.
In 2006 we will start serious engineering work on the building of the
- Dear Mr Piotrovsky, we all know that the Hermitage collection is
huge, but I wonder if you purchase new works of art. What is the most
recent acquisition in the collection?
- Of course, we do purchase new works of art even if we do not have
a great deal of money. We cannot afford to buy great masterpieces, but
we do find quite unique things. We have just purchased a water color by
Chernetsova which depicts the Malachite Hall. We recently acquired a fan
decorated with a painting of Paul I's coronation. In addition we received
a donation of a portrait of Napoleon drawn by Isabel which Napoleon gave
to Speransky. These are the sorts of things we acquire. New acquisitions
are exhibited in the halls of the Hermitage almost at once. Everything
we buy for the exhibition on Alexander I will be exhibited already in
May. And by tradition on December 31 we show off the best present received
by the Hermitage in the course of the year. It is our custom to exhibit
the best acquisition of the year on 31 December. So, as you see, the exhibit
items immediately are put on display.
- Mr Piotrovsky, what do you think about small museums? For example,
the Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic? How are they supposed to survive
in the 21st century? Who will pay for them? Will they be private or state
institutions? What advice can you give?
- There are no great and small museums as such. All our museums are
united in the Union of Museums of Russia which has the duty of helping
all of them and assisting them to survive. We all share experience with
one another. I think we have a rather good body of museum experience in
Russia today. Museums apply their own activity, state and private subsidies,
and financing from various corporations and companies. Taken together
this makes it possible for museums to make a living. The Museum of the
Arctic has, of course, a great many problems. We are trying to help them
solve these problems. There are many friends from the Antarctic who are
pleased to assist, our polar researchers and highly placed officials who
are not indifferent to the museum's fate.
- Dear Professor Piotrovsky, please tell me whether the museum will
continue to expand into other cities in the 21st century???
- Well let us see what happens in Kazan. Of course, we will continue
our program of organizing exhibitions around Russia. We just opened a
splendid exhibition in Irkutsk called From Fujiyama to Montmartre,
featuring Japanese and French prints from a period when Japanese prints
exerted a great influence on French art. Exhibitions like this one will
be organized in other cities as well. I think that at present it is sufficient
if we implement the plans for Kazan. This will use up our resources for
- Please tell us whether subscription tickets to the Hermitage are
- Yes, the Hermitage sells subscription tickets to university students,
school children and residents of Petersburg. These tickets go on sale
at the start of the season, that is to say in September.
- Dear Mr Piotrovsky, I always follow the internet conferences which
are held in Cafemax in Moscow and St Petersburg. You have taken part in
these conferences a number of times. We know you are a busy man, that
you travel a lot, and so I ask why do you chat on line? Thank you.
- If you follow all of my press conferences in the internet then presumably
this exercise makes sense and is interesting to someone. And if it is
interesting, that means it is all the more important to do it, since it
is one of the duties of the director. You have to communicate with your
consumers, with your friends and partners: that is part of the job of
being the director.
- Dear Mr Piotrovsky, please explain whether the creation of Hermitage
branch museums in Western Europe and America is just some kind of international
PR or are these projects an interesting business in themselves.
- Speaking as a businessman, I would say there is not much of interest
for us. The main benefit is elsewhere: this is a projection of Russian
reality and history, because the Hermitage represents a great manifestation
of Russian culture and the principlese the Hermitage representauseums
in Western Europea of Russian cultural transparency. We are showing to
the world not just objects; we are showing to the world our interpretation
of world history and culture. We are practicing globalization. This is
indeed an element of globalization, involving its positive and attractive
aspects. We are promoting the Hermitage as a response to McDonald's. In
this way we exert our influence and make our adjustment to globalization.
- Are you a member of the "United Russia" party?
- No, I don't belong to the "United Russia" party or to
any other party.
- Please tell me how you personally feel about the fact that the
planet "Piotrovsky" has been named after you?
- I find it very pleasant, especially since it was named not only
in my honor, but also in honor of my father. It is very nice.
- Dear Professor Piotrovsky, can you please tell us something about
the Faberge exhibition?
- The Faberge exhibition is an event. We are witnessing an important
event when eggs from the Vekselberg collection are returning to the Winter
Palace, where many of them were originally held and where they were given
as presents. The items on exhibit today were shown here before at a large
Faberge exhibition. The exhibition itself is remarkable. It is a phenomenon:
here we see these very powerful, very expensive examples of applied art
back in Russian hands. This shows that Russia is a factor in the world
art market and that Russia is able to purchase and repatriate items that
it seemed were lost to us forever.
- Have you taken part in archeological excavations in Central Asia
and if so, then in which countries?
- I participated in excavations in Tajikistan, in excavations in the
Northern Caucasus, in Chechnya, in digs in Armenia, in digs in Yemen.
During the past 10 years there has been archeological work carried out
It was most interesting of all for me in Yemen, of course, since that
is my specialty and Yemen give me a special sensation. There were also
interesting finds, a lot of them. We dug out several huge temples, an
enormous quantity of inscriptions, so there was plenty to do.
- Dear Mr Piotrovsky, does the Hermitage have plans to exhibit artists
from the second half of the 20th century?
- Yes, we are always producing exhibitions featuring artists from
the second half of the 20th century - see, for example, Kabakov, Bourgeois.
In a few days we will be opening our exhibition of the celebrated photographer
Mapplethorpe, who also is from this period. And we plan to continue this
exhibition activity. Our principle is to choose the most significant,
most emblematic figures of the second half of the 20th century. We also
hope that we will one day have permanent exhibitions of 20th century artists
in the General Staff complex.
- Which works of art are you planning to purchase in the future?
Will they be the basis for a new exhibition? Do you have a favorite painting
in the museum?
- Well, I don't quite know what to say. First, I don't know. Second,
I won't tell. If we are planning to acquire something, then we have to
cross our fingers and knock wood in the hope of succeeding. So I won't
say. We do have plans and an agreement with possible sponsors, but nonetheless
you never know how things will turn out. Sometimes we just don't have
enough money. Sometimes someone else outbids us. We have our plans, but
they are secret.
With respect to my favorite painting, I'll tell you that this changes
from time to time. The museum is for me a place where I go through looking
for what is not right. Therefore it is hard for me to take pleasure from
a painting here. I get more pleasure seeing paintings in other museums.
- How do you see the Hermitage? Is it an "historical relic",
a "place for keeping cultural treasures" or a "place of
- The Hermitage is an enormous world. It is quite diverse, very beautiful,
and noble. The Hermitage is the world in which my colleagues and I live
and work. This is a world with its own peculiarities, its own dimensions,
its light, its heavens and its earth.
- Works of art sometimes attract people whose intentions are not
good. Have there been attempts to steal art works from the Hermitage and,
if so, were there any successful attempts?
- Unfortunately, there is always a competition between museums and
art thieves, and everywhere in the world there are thefts of paintings.
In the Hermitage we have had several thefts but all, with one exception,
were solved. That one unsolved case was the theft of a painting of Gerome,
and the painting is still being sought.
- Dear Mr Piotrovsky, what do you think in general about internet
conferences? Wouldn't you agree that you have to respond to some very
tough questions - questions which don't have any direct relation to your
professional activity? Will such conferences take place again?
- The conferences will be repeated. The questions are not really tricky,
but rather normal and sometimes they pose a challenge. I can tell you
because I give so many interviews. Sometimes I meet with journalists for
an interview and their questions are just shocking the way they show such
ignorance of the matter at hand. Whereas here everything is quite normal,
so the conferences will continue. Moreover people do write that they view
the conferences regularly. If they are interesting, then , of course,
we keep on doing this. The internet is a remarkable way of communicating
with our visitors and with those who love the Hermitage. We have a life
on the internet just as we have a life in the Hermitage. This is just
another form of our existence.
- What changes have occurred in the Hermitage site over the past
half-year since the last internet conference?
- There have been many virtual exhibitions and three-dimensional presentations
of precious things, bronzes etc plus the virtual academy. We are going
to add a series on biblical stories. The site is being constantly updated
and renewed, which is why it is in my opinion the best museum site.
- Dear Mr Piotrovsky, in some places abroad there are holographic
copies of famous art exhibits other things of this nature displayed. To
what extent is this possible to do in the Hermitage? What modern technologies
do you use here?
- I think that holograms are not very interesting for us, because
we have genuine things, and we present originals. A museum like ours is
a museum which shows people originals, not virtual art. Holograms are
virtual. Nonetheless we deploy all the latest information technologies
- the internet, a site, and now a computer gallery which has been modified
for children. So we use information technologies quite widely, but we
will not create illusions to display in our halls.
- (a question from a journalist in the room regarding the attraction
of visitors to the Hermitage, to St Petersburg).
- We will of course do this. There will be a series of catalogs and
guidebooks both to the collections and to the Hermitage itself. Our main
support is our website, because right now using our site you can walk
through all the halls of the Hermitage. Next you will get a snapshot of
the pictures on the walls and the like. So I think that the latest technologies
are there mainly to bring the images to people who live far away. Our
centers also serve this objective, enabling people who cannot come to
Petersburg or still are not ready to make the trip, to see something and
attract them. I know many people who came here after visiting the Hermitage
in London and Amsterdam.
- (a question from a journalist in the hall: Why will a traveling
exhibition be organized in Kazan?
- Because when the Hermitage goes somewhere, it becomes an event.
For this to happen many different conditions have to be satisfied. The
local museum has to be restored and brought up to necessary technical
standards. We need to assure it will be a big cultural event and not just
a formality of ticking off a box on some bureaucratic report. We don't
visit every city. This year we had our Siberian project, but we did not
go to one city on our list because we understood that they are not very
eager to receive us and they are unhappy to part with the money necessary
to display our exhibits. However, in Kazan we have followed this principle
and conducted several large and expensive exhibitions. I am convinced
we were the reason why several museum centers have been restored. We always
are presented as a great event: the President and Prime Minister come,and
everyone who lives in the region can come to the exhibition. What I see
is complete respect and local involvement. We also get everything needed
by way of security, assured micro-climate, etc. This is why Kazan has
proven to us over a number of years that it is an appropriate place for
- What do you think about the idea of creating a museum of modern
art in the city?
- I think that this is an excellent idea and it is regrettable that
for some reason no one has made even small museums of modern art. I think
it is a pity that the Warsaw Railway Station was not turned into a center
of contemporary art. Perhaps it is still not too late to do so. Of course,
we need museums of modern art, but they just do not appear. For this reason
the Hermitage decided to collect and display 20th century art, maybe even
contemporary art. I hope that maybe one day soon there will be a large
and well-financed museum here like the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in
- They say a man is alive so long as he has dreams and yearns to
achieve something. What is your most precious wish?
- I don't have any precious wishes. The program of the "Great
Hermitage" is my main goal. I also wish there were fewer malicious
fault-finders and persons driven by envy.
- People don't extend congratulations ahead of a birthday, but nonetheless…
we have two important dates coming up: the birthday of the Hermitage and
your own personal birthday. So I congratulate you and want to ask to what
extent these two events are interlinked? Will you celebrate your birthday
at work? What is the best gift for you?
- Thanks very much for the kind wishes. But I wouldn't go so far as
to liken myself to the Hermitage. The Hermitage is a great phenomenon.
Whereas I, like all of us, cut a small figure in comparison to the Hermitage.
All of us who work in the Hermitage try to act in a manner appropriate
to this institution. And if we succeed in matching the standards of the
Hermitage, then that is the best present we could ask for.
I have no special plans to celebrate my birthday, neither at work nor
Thank you very much for your questions.