Interview in Chic Magazine
- Mikhail Borisovich, what does the Hermitage mean in your life?
- Every normal man knows that work is a part of life. The Hermitage is a large part of my life. It is the place where I not only work but where I grew up, where I studied administrative and scholarly activity. It is an ideal place for both work and life in general.
- What is your favorite place in the Hermitage?
-There is no such place, but if there were I wouldn't say. A director has no right to have favorite places. I should be everywhere.
- Might we say that the Hermitage has become your second home?
- Not the second, the first home...
- We speak of the elements and I wonder which elements of nature protect the Hermitage?
- The Hermitage is not protected by the elements, because it is a great symbol of culture and culture is opposed to all the elements, since it means the transformation of nature. This is why there have been fires in the Hermitage but it never burned down. It is assaulted by water but has never drowned. It withstands the fury of the winds to this day. Its calling is to oppose the elements.
- What are the relations between the Hermitage and the modern day world?
- The Hermitage is one of the most modern museums in the world in terms of museum management and construction work. We don't build new halls, which are not needed. Rather, we build storage facilities where we apply the latest, 21st century methods of display and where things can be shown in great quantities and not one-by-one on each wall. On the one hand, the Hermitage does not fear anything new (for which reason we are often chastised). On the other hand, we continue to remain a very conservative museum and we preserve our traditions: natural light from the windows, a festive setting, museum premises in a palace, but where modern art makes sense if it enters into dialogue with the rest. We are a universal museum, which is no longer especially fashionable: people simply hate universal museums. pecially fashioalonger especially fashioas into dialogue with the rest. We collect diverse cultures, put them side by side and create a kind of special world of extinguished empires.
- What unjustified myths pursue the Hermitage?
- There are such myths, and they are due to ignorance. Once upon a time there was the myth that Grigory Vasilievich Romanov took royal dishes from the Hermitage for his daughter's wedding and broke them. That myth had no foundation in fact, if only for the reason that in the Hermitage you can hardly collect enough dinner service to set a table. But this stubborn myth was a typical example of propaganda or KGB disinformation. Romanov then moved up the ladder. Now there is another stubborn and remarkable myth about how all the real paintings in the Hermitage were sold off and copies are hanging in their place. The source of this myth is the story of how in the 1920's the Hermitage truly sold a lot. But we don't seem to have any funny myths..
- How important is it for a modern person who considers himself to be cultured to have contact with traditions?
-Contact with our cultural heritage is essential, because there is not much separating men from animals other than the presence of culture in particular. Culture must be imbibed; it is not handed down with our genes. This is why this contact is a factor in making us human. The Hermitage is just the museum where there are a multitude of levels of contact, communion with our cultural heritage. You can come here and simply sigh as you remark: "What extraordinary gilding!" That also works. Or you can see how wonderfully the Madonna Litta's fingernail has been drawn. Therefore we are always doing battle with the state, which places work with the cultural heritage in the social sphere, as if it were assistance to the poor. Yet looking after the cultural heritage is the most important obligation of the state. The state should not lead us. It exists to ensure domestic and foreign security and to preserve culture. Culture is the state's obligation and not an activity that helps the state.
- In general you speak about an educational function. But you can't force a man to go to the museum if he doesn't want to!
- You can force him. There is an element of coercion in bringing someone up. Beyond that you have to create conditions whereby people want to go to the museum. That is what we try to do. The main thing is not to turn the museum into a farce: as we know, the museum exists somewhere between a temple and Disneyland.
- But isn't the Hermitage something of a Disneyland for visitors to St Petersburg? It is part of an obligatory tour program – this shiny-chic,the gilding...?
- Nobody has to go to Disneyland within a tour; they do so for the sake of pleasure. In a museum, unfortunately, there is a situation when tourists, the very people who pay us money, come to us in droves and sometimes in a great rush. Nonetheless, they do go away with something and the individual is ennobled. However, there are obstacles created by having a huge number of people together, when they seek to enjoy a contemplative relationship with the art. In the summer such contemplation is not possible in the Hermitage: people are pushing and shoving and it is stuffy. There are various levels of consumption, but they all bring us something. We must think how to combine things. A writer once said that we should introduce some requirement to decide whom to admit to the museum, whom not to admit. But in imposing a requirement I would not admit him to the Hermitage. The museum is the most democratic form of art: it is either free or inexpensive; it is accessible all day long without any required program. Everyone finds something interesting for himself. Nowadays museums around the world are beginning to play an ever greater role as centers of education, as centers of recreation, where education is achieved by means of pleasure.
Now museums have become the symbols of many cities. The Hermitage, understandably, was always the symbol of Petersburg and Russia. And the Metropolitan became the symbol of New York relatively recently: it is today one of the most attractive magnets in the city for tourists.
- Has the Hermitage preserved any traditions?
- In part we have preserved the palace traditions and military ceremonies of all sorts. We cannot resurrect them totally, since there is no emperor today. But several rituals have been preserved. Thus on the day of a guards unit, an honorary guard company performs a march inside the palace with a band and banner. Another tradition which we ourselves created is the birthday of the Hermitage, on December 7-9, on the days of St George and St Catherine, when we traditionally open exhibitions, organize various ceremonies and receptions. We have the holiday around the opening and closing of the "white nights," when we assemble in a closed courtyard and have a torch which we either light or extinguish on the given day. We do not organize balls, since we can't yet collect enough people for that. Once a year we have our Great Charity Dinner when we invite special guests: the time before last this was the Prince of Wales, for example.
- What astonishes you personally in the Hermitage?
- On the one hand, nothing shocks me any more. On the other hand – everything. All of us who work in the Hermitage have the feeling of a holiday every day. I consider myself the most fortunate person in the world – and that is astonishing. The Hermitage is a combination of everything: this means the greatest paintings by the greatest painters which were correctly selected as far back as Catherine the Great; the views from the windows; the grandeur of the halls. It is the completely amazing sense of history which you cannot find in any other museum of the world. After all, this museum was always part of a palace; it is not just that a palace was turned into a museum. What we have is the natural blending of museum and palace: once there was more palace, now there is more museum. This astonishes everyone and brings huge pleasure.
- Does this mean that the Hermitage has not yet completely become an abstraction – it maintains its history as private property?
- Here in the main residence this was not so much the private as the state life of the imperial court. An imperial spirit is still here. It is felt not only by us who work here but also by people who visit. All of Russian history lives in the best examples of art, in these sacred walls.
- With what materials is the Hermitage "inlaid" or "encrusted."?
- A large variety of materials. Of course, this includes the amazing parquet floors. You have to walk on the floor of the museum. Though it is cleaned, we must create a certain illusion that people enter into a special relationship with this material. In a museum you are hardly allowed to touch anything,, but you can sit on the floor and it is splendid when tourists, whether children or adults, sit on the floor. The materials are superb: this is, of course, marble and false marble, which may be called "artificial." It is a kind of plasterwork, which is in itself a remarkable art that has almost disappeared today, so few people know how to do it. It is used to face a large part of the walls and despite its unnatural look, it is beautiful. All these materials exist in such combinations and represent different levels of luxury.
- What things in the Hermitage are in your opinion the most luxurious?
- I don't know... What do we mean by luxury? Faberge articles or the daggers of Persian shahs? Peter the Great's modest dressing gown or his immodest dressing gown? Everything artistic is in itself a luxury. Everything that is rare and inaccessible is a luxury. The Hermitage is the very symbol of luxury; and it is accessible to everyone, though to a certain limit.
- Why is it that charismatic personalities such as the imperial family surrounded themselves by such special objects and interiors?
- If we look at Napoleon, he did not surround himself with special luxury, though he built museums and other chic public buildings. They are signs of power which must be advanced to demonstrate to the people its might and capabilities. Moreover, great buildings are a sort of pension, a certain pay-back by the authorities for part of the pleasures, money, and property of others that they have appropriated in the form of something common. Even if the emperor lives in the great palace and you cannot enter, nonetheless is belongs to the people who live around.
- Where do you feel in your own element?
- Everywhere. I am an orientalist by profession and that means that I live in several civilizations. The Hermitage is more than a home. Unfortunately you cannot shut yourself up here. It is an open house with many guests always present.
- How do the elements reveal themselves in your own home?
- I don't have fountains or fireplaces in my 3-room flat. Not even an aquarium. The elements exist only in the water pipes. I like stones. Among my favorite things are some pieces of the cement wall of Hitler's command center near Vinnitsa; this is a 20th century mineral.
- What awaits the Hermitage in the near future?
- A fight with the government for proper laws. I don't know, maybe we will all be swept away by a tsunami. But we surely must reconstruct the eastern wing of the General Staff building and complete our storage facility, so as to raise the accessibility of our collections to the public significantly. We are developing our centers at various ends of the earth: this summer we open the Hermitage center in Kazan and the network of representations will be extended. Gradually there will be the Great Hermitage. People will hear more and more about it. It will occupy an every greater place in the lives of people and in different parts of the world people will offer apartments for sale with the remark: "with a view of the Hermitage" as they now do already in Amsterdam.
- In these events your decisions will be of key importance. Have you had occasion to take spontaneous decisions, decisions on the fly, and how did things end up?
- I think I have not taken any spontaneous decisions, though sometimes I take decisions quickly, other times slowly. What is important here is that the decisions taken quickly did not cause any harm and the ones taken slowly did not lose us any opportunities. I have not taken any decisions that I would regret.
- What holds the world up?
- It seems to me that the world is supported by some kind of rational beauty. This is not the beauty of rosy cheeks, but rather the beauty of refined architectural details.