Interview with the magazine Business Class
- Mikhail Borisovich, the Hermitage is not just a museum and keeper of art treasures but a live, dynamic and evolving organism. What is going on now in the Hermitage? What programs and projects will you be launching in the near future for the pleasure of Petersburgers?
- The Hermitage owns one of the world's most valuable and complete collections of art and cultural objects. This imposes a special responsibility on our museum and for that reason the Hermitage develops its activity along many different lines simultaneously. The museum collects, studies, puts on display, and presents to the public objects of art and culture. The Hermitage disseminates information, educates the public and shapes values. We are constantly conducting general and specialized tours and lectures, hosting study circles and internet-classes. Our research activity is an important component in the worldwide reputation of the Hermitage. We not only collect things, but we are also permanently busy studying our collection. We publish books and guides. We conduct scholarly conferences and seminars. At the same time the Hermitage is like a major international corporation where much depends on expert and thoughtful management. The difference is that the criterion for a business corporation's success is earned cash, whereas a museum is essentially a non-profit institution which receives public funding and contributions.
- The main task before the Hermitage today is to make our collections more accessible to visitors, both in Petersburg and beyond. Sometimes we in the museum administration are criticized, because the public can see only 5 -10% of all the treasures held by the Hermitage, and this reproach is not without grounds. Although we use various means to expand the number of items displayed in the halls, there are nonetheless objective reasons why we cannot present for viewing everything that we own.
- The first reason is the sheer volume. You will surely agree that if we were to place along the walls of the museum multi-level showcases with ancient skulls, tools and crafts of primeval man, the religious articles from different countries and peoples, etc., then the visitor would simply be unable to take in all this mass of information. Even now it is difficult to absorb what is in the Hermitage, and in the near future we will open the eastern wing of the General Staff building, and the task will be that much more complex.
- The second reason is the nature of the exhibits themselves. You must remember that a large part of the art and cultural objects kept in the Hermitage cannot be permanently exhibited due to their fragility and susceptibility to the destructive action of light. These are drawings and paintings on paper, etchings, costumes and textiles. But we are convinced that these articles also should be accessible to visitors from time to time, otherwise the museum simply turns into a warehouse. It is precisely this idea of the need to show all our treasures to the public in various ways that underlies the Great Hermitage project.
-Đlease tell us about the implementation of this project. What stages are planned for 2005?
- Strictly speaking, the Great Hermitage is not so much a detailed plan as it is a concept for development. The Hermitage expands around its basic physical plant so quickly that sometimes we have to correct the tour guides: nowadays we look after not six, but already nine buildings in different parts of the city. The most important part of the development plan is reconstruction to be carried out under the gallery of the eastern wing of the General Staff complex. The building has already been transferred to us officially and the initial tranche of financing has been arranged with the World Bank and with the federal budget. Work on the architectural drawings has begun. The collections which we plan to show there include applied and fine art of the 19th and 20th centuries. The new building will also house the Museum of the Guards, the Faberge Museum, and the Shchukin and Morozov collections.
-One problem is that art of the second half of the 20th century is hardly represented in the Hermitage collections, and now we are discussing with our Western partners how to correct this situation.is aMorozov collections. art of the 19th der the gallery of the eastern wing of the Possibly we will receive some canvases as donations, others will be taken on loan from other museums and private collections for temporary exhibitions, still others will have to be bought. I imagine that our galleries will look to the example of the displays in the Musee d'Orsay, but at the same time will reflect our own, Hermitage concept of how modern art should be "served up."
-Another vector of growth in the Great Hermitage plan is the representation of the Hermitage on the territory of Petersburg. One of the successful examples has been the Museum of Porcelain at the Lomonosov Porcelain. Here we succeeded in creating an important precedent: the museum is located on grounds of the factory and is private, but the porcelain collection belongs to the state. The Hermitage has charge of the collection and studies it. We also run the Museum. We work a great deal with the production masters and management of the factory. We put on joint exhibitions both in Russia and abroad, and together we publish books. Not long ago we had a very successful joint exhibition of the Hermitage and the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory in Amsterdam. The general sponsor of the show was UralSib.
- One other Hermitage location is the Konstantinovsky Palace in Strelna. On part of the premises there is a permanent display of items from our collections. The palace houses the Museum of Heraldry and the Museum of State Awards, allowing us to present some very interesting exhibits from our holdings which are thematically linked with the functions of the palace as a diplomatic residence.
-One other way of displaying our collections is the creation of open storage facilities. Thus in 2004 we opened a repository in the city district near the Staraya Derevnya metro station. The public is welcome and in terms of its technical features this is at present the best art repository in the world. From the very start, the architectural design provided for display of our collections there. After all one of the important tasks of such storage buildings is its educational function. Now you can see there one of the richest collections of furniture and carriages. We are also preparing to display there monumental paintings, tapestries and costumes. Guided tours are already being given in the repository and in the future there will be lectures.
- Despite all this intensive growth in "breadth," we are trying to devote no less attention to the renovation of the main halls. We are carrying on permanent work and making the halls of the Hermitage better lit and inviting. We are increasing the density of paintings hung on the walls and showing more and more new things. Whereas in the middle of the 20th century museum aesthetics required that a lot of space was left free around each object or painting, nowadays we are partially returning to the 19th century display methods and moving paintings closer together to form a "carpet" on the wall.
- One further basic direction of the Hermitage's activity is rotating exhibitions based on our own collections. For these thematic exhibitions we often choose items which do not necessarily present high artistic value but are directly related to one or another historical personality or epoch. Thus, the most important exhibition of 2005 may well be the one devoted to Emperor Alexander I. He was a controversial figure with whom one associates many gloomy, great and puzzling events of Russian history, and our exhibition is intended to substantially rehabilitate the Russian tsar as an individual. Alexander I did a great deal to increase the Hermitage collections. The task of such exhibitions is to do more than just take some items out of the storerooms and show them off. A Hermitage exhibition is always an original narration in the context of modern cultural and historical discourse.
-It often happens that we are preparing an exhibition for Petersburgers and visitors to the city and then we send it on to other Russian cities or abroad. Not long ago we completed a program of showing part of the Hermitage collection in Siberia. Now we are preparing a program for the South of Russia, and to celebrate the thousand year anniversary of Kazan we intend to open a representation on the territory of the Kazan Kremlin.
- How did the idea of opening a Hermitage representation in Kazan come about?
- After many years of collaborating with the museum staff and administration of the city of Kazan, we came to the conclusion that we should elevate this cooperation to a more serious level.
In the Hermitage we say that whether we are dealing with London or Kazan, it is all the same. What we mean is that the requirements we set for the exhibition premises are always equally high. The technical aspect, equipment, security, display cases and, of course, informational support provided for the exhibitions in Kazan always met these serious standards. It is very important for the Hermitage that our exhibitions be the main or among the main cultural events in the city where we are coming, and for this to happen the local authorities must understand the significance of it all.
-There have been instances when we have cancelled an exhibition, because we felt that there was insufficient interest shown by the receiving side. But in Kazan the level of interest has always been high. Each of our exhibitions there received wide attention in the mass media. Our exhibitions coincided with major events in the history of Kazan, with national holidays, and President of Tatarstan M. Shaimiev always took an active part both in the organization and in the opening of the exhibitions. In a word, we had the feeling that our efforts are not in vain, that our activity is in demand, that the Hermitage exhibitions in Kazan have attracted their own audience.
-And now the Junker complex of the Kazan Kremlin has been specially restored to receive the Hermitage collection. We are working on the exhibition and the permanent show will be opened in time for the celebration of the city's anniversary. The subject of the exhibition is The Culture of the Golden Horde, which is very important both for the internal political dialogue and dialogue between the local peoples in Tatarstan itself and in Russia. This subject is very well researched and developed in the Hermitage. We have a very rich collection of items which, I hope, will help to define a disinterested, objective point of view. And in general Hermitage exhibitions always try to take an objective, substantive approach to this or that historical issue. We attempt to reduce commentary to a minimum: the exhibits themselves tell an attentive viewer a great deal; all you need to do is to give them the chance "to start talking."
The representation in Kazan is a very important step for the Hermitage. We plan to make this center the focus of the city's cultural life. We will conduct an extensive educational program, organize scholarly seminars, conferences and lectures. The center will be permanently alive with work and there is still a great deal to do in the future to implement this project.
- Celebrated patrons of the arts from the past have their place in the history of Russia and Petersburg. What will our own age and today's patrons leave behind? How much real support does private money provide for the preservation and expansion of the Hermitage collections?
- To begin with you have to spread the understanding that helping culture is not the right but the obligation of society. Culture is the salt of the earth, the essence of the philosophy of the nation's existence. It is an expression of the national idea. The Hermitage has made its own significant contribution to the respect the world continues to pay to Russia and its culture.
-We must say that in the history of Russia, as in the history of most any state, patrons of the arts were not so numerous. Shchukin, Morozov and Tretyakov were not so much patrons as they were collectors for whom art was a passion and to a certain extent an investment. Therefore talk about the rebirth of patronage is not so compelling. Today's wealthy individuals and business corporations have a conceptually new approach to financial support for culture. We must be pleased with the way that an understanding is growing in Russia that business bears a measure of responsibility to society and the nation. At the same time there is a growing appreciation that the "cultural stratum" is not something frozen in time and dead, but living material which needs to be not only cared for and preserved but also permanently perpetuated.
Essentially the state has three fields of responsibility to its citizens: security of the country from outside threat, security of its citizens within the country, and the preservation and increase of the cultural heritage. Not every state manages these tasks very well, and our own present authorities are no exception. However, I must say that when a state interferes too actively in cultural affairs, as a rule this also does not lead to anything good. We Russians had every opportunity to be persuaded of this on the basis of our own experience. I am convinced that the state should play a weighty but also a limited role in the support and development of culture. Meanwhile foundations, corporations and business people - the stratum of business which can and should participate in perpetuating and increasing the nation's culture - occupy an ever clearer and active position.
There are many different reasons why business participates in the development of culture. Sometimes it is the simple interest of individuals. It may be to create reputations. The most important reason is to bring up the generations following us. Predictability and a defined pattern in history – these are very important conditions for developing business. By helping to properly educate the younger generation, business strives to create a model for future society. However paradoxical it may seem, the creation of an educated, well brought-up and cultured nation is essential and advantageous first of all for business society itself. This is a serious matter, a whole philosophy, and when our partners are at this level of understanding the issue (as is the case with all the business partners of the Hermitage), then we see this mutual enrichment which gives satisfaction to everyone. People receive pleasure in their association with the world of the Hermitage, and the Hermitage knows how to show its appreciation to its partners and friends. Nowadays the Society of Hermitage Friends is a rather large and constantly growing organization. Among our business partners there are many leaders of small and medium-sized businesses, who most commonly provide the Hermitage with some services for free or give us as their sponsorship contribution some part of the revenue they earn from their contracts with us. At the next level are our major partners, both Russian and foreign, who help us to realize our large projects. As a rule there is some shared commercial interest in this cooperation: advertisements, ratings, business reputation, etc., but to a large extent these sponsors are moved by a global understanding of the same eternal values which lie at the basis of culture's perpetuation.
-What about the Hermitage's foreign relations? How are the museum's relations developing with our close neighbors, in particular, with Finland?
- Every year the Hermitage prepares and sends abroad five or six exhibitions. This gives people around the world not merely a chance to see part of our collection but it is also a means of getting to know Russian culture and Russian history. Russia plays a huge role in preserving, developing and interpreting world culture and usually it is not so important which historical period or country the exhibition is devoted to - for it inevitably says something about Russian history, Russian art collecting and collectors, about the influence of Russia in forming a "cultural stratum." In the big order of things, culture is just about the only competitive and non-shameful commodity that Russia can offer for trade today. The same can hardly be said about arms or oil.
-We have permanent exhibition centers abroad where we hold thematic exhibitions and also display individual works of art and canvases. Such centers are operating in London and in Las Vegas (together with the Guggenheim Museum, with whom we successfully cooperate for many years now). Recently a center like this appeared in Amsterdam.
-We have extensive ties with other countries, especially with our closest neighbors – Germany, Switzerland and Finland. Finnish companies provide a great deal of assistance to the Hermitage in the field of technical improvements. All of our art storage facilities have been reconstructed using Finnish technologies, and Finnish companies helped to restore the Hermitage Theatre. We try out many technical innovations in the Hermitage such as equipment and engineering networks and in this process Finnish specialists also take part. The Hermitage develops links with the art institutions of Finland, with its museums and galleries.
The most recent and very important event for our two countries has been the opening of an exhibition in the Hermitage dedicated to Marshal Mannerheim. The exhibition is somewhat provocative, but it has been conceived in such a manner as to elicit controversy and destroy the existing cliches on both sides of the issue. We also tried to preserve our objectivity and a substantive approach. For us Mannerheim is firstly a brilliant Russian officer, member of the Guards Regiment, nobleman, and researcher of Central Asia. And this role contrasts with the one he played in world history.
We always try to approach history in an unconventional manner, to prod the visitor to think independently about the fate of peoples and individuals. In the halls of the Hermitage history speaks through things. This genuine reality of things is very important to understand life's laws.
-The Director of the Hermitage should not only understand issues in art but also be a professional manager. What are the difficulties and priorities in your position? What guides you in your choice of business partners or suppliers for renovation and other work?
- Of course the Hermitage is a special world, and being part of it gives us a special, positive energy. But the work of a manager, like any other work, can be successful only when you find it interesting. Surely there are both difficulties and positive aspects. I find it very interesting to be the director of the Hermitage. If we are going to speak about the choice of partners, then this is always rather strict. In the Hermitage we have a Department of Development. We study the people and companies who offer us their cooperation or money. You always have to understand the motivation of your partner and to make your own serious decisions on whom you can collaborate with, and whom you cannot. There is a criterion of our own making. There is money that you cannot accept, since there are various ways to make money which we cannot agree to. The responsibility for these decisions rests with the Hermitage and, in the final analysis, on me personally.
The basic scheme for cooperating with partners and sponsors these days has been worked out. All of our exhibition centers abroad were a sort of laboratory. That is where we learned how to conduct business, where we tried out various models for interaction which it would have been difficult to apply in Russian conditions. And we continue to learn from our foreign colleagues. We study how to interact with partners. We learn about independence and to appreciate our own worth.
The Hermitage is alive and developing. Additions are always being made to our collection. Thus not long ago, thanks to help from the Ministry of Culture, we acquired a portrait of Alexander I's wife. We also have received as a gift the portrait of Napoleon which once belonged to Speransky.
We have succeeded in breaking down the negative stereotypes of the past and in persuading both ourselves and those around us that notwithstanding all the difficulties of our age Russian culture is not the poor stepdaughter of some malicious stepmother, meaning the Economy. We are developing further. The Hermitage has its pride and grand plans for the future. We believe that most of these plans will be implemented.