Interview with the newspaper
"Arguments and Facts – Petersburg"
13 April 2004
One can reasonably say that the Hermitage is the most dynamically
developing museum in Russia. It is among the unconditional leaders in
organizing exhibitions: there are several dozen of them a year, moreover
not only in Petersburg but also in many cities around Russia, from Kaliningrad
to Irkutsk. The Hermitage was the first museum in the country to establish
a free-entrance day for visitors, the first to open branches abroad.
-Mikhail Borisovich, we all love the Hermitage, but let us tell you a
certain story. During the school holidays the spouse of one of our staff
decided to take her 10-year-old son to your museum. In the hall exhibiting
the lesser Dutch masters the boy got interested in one painting, and his
mother began to tell him about it.
A lady supervisor came up to them and asked: “Why are you standing here
so long? It is prohibited to be so close.”
“We are not touching anything. We just want to study the painting.”
They went over to another painting. And the supervisor followed them,
saying: “And are you planning on standing here for a long time as well?”
In the next room the supervisor was not so stern, but also asked them
not to linger, explaining: “They criticize us for that, and you will get
in the way of tour groups.”
-You raise an interesting subject… It is difficult to ensure that the
supervisors will be very courteous, because they are asked questions and
they ought to watch and see that visitors not spoil anything. Then when
there are holidays, all of the service staff are working on a regime of
heightened vigilance. Regarding the idea that a visitor might “hinder
the guided tours”, well that notion is completely incorrect: it is outdated,
coming down from the Soviet period. At that time everything revolved around
guided tours. That is why we don’t have a developed set of commentaries
about displayed works of art; the expectation was that visitors would
be taken around, shown the works of art and everything would be explained
to them by a guide. That time is coming to an end and now our orientation
is towards the individual visitor. I hold dearer the individual visitor
who comes to the museum because he wanted to. And it is so good to go
around the Hermitage on your own, without tours! As for the incident with
the spouse and son of your staff member, well I do apologize.
-You have so many exhibitions that it is hard to find time to see
- We create exhibitions to interest very different types of viewers, so
that it is not necessary to go to all of them. However, Petersburg is
not Moscow. We don’t have massive visitor flows to exhibitions, even to
the most unusual ones. In Moscow there is a lot more hullabaloo. They
have an additional element of high society life, rather like in Europe.
- Petersburgers will remember that formerly the Hermitage put on super-exhibitions
like “The Treasures of Tutankamun.” Now it seems the scale is not the
- Our recent exhibition of Mexican art is an example of precisely such
“super-exhibitions”! And “Tutankamun” was an outstanding event a hundred
years ago, just as the Hermitage’s “Scythian Gold” was in New York’s Metropolitan
Museum. Today the crowds would not form for such a show; the glint of
gold does not work the same magic. I think that “blockbuster” exhibitions
are not needed, because people can travel around the world and see museums.
Exhibitions should me arranged with more finesse or we should show something
really new and not just famous. Moreover, our exhibitions are among the
most visited in the world. The show devoted to Peter the First was seen
by 450,000 people although, perhaps, many Petersburgers did not come.
- What do VIP’s – presidents, crowned heads of state – get to see
in the Hermitage?
- The majority of them have been here more than once. What they see depends
on their personal predilections. For example, during his last visit Prince
Charles was interested in Bassano, while Paul McCartney wanted to see
how personages in the paintings play musical instruments. McCartney came
to the conclusion that only in one case of a painting by Picasso do they
really play, while the rest of the artists do not even know how to hold
the instrument properlã.
- Nonetheless, are there typical tour itineraries for VIP’s?
- I do have a standard set of things to show and this is passed on by
the security service as well. But I do not “conduct a guided tour,” because
I do not just show off the Hermitage. Rather we have a conversation about
everything under the sun, and I want to convince the visitors that we
–in Russia – are fine people.
- Do you pursue your selfish institutional interests, for example,
by asking for money to advance new projects?
- We are not so selfish and we do not really need all that much. It is
really about good relations. Some people, to be sure, won’t believe that.
Some time ago Yuri Yarov, then deputy chief of the presidential administration,
brought along some guest and asked us right away: “Well, where is the
paper for me to sign?” “What paper?” we said. “Shouldn’t I be signing
something?” Despite our old Russian tradition in these matters, I did
not have any papers ready for signature. And I do not have them at present.
Recently we stand with visitors and look out the windows onto Palace Square,
explaining: “the Arch and part of the General Staff building is ours,
but it would be nice if we also took over the former headquarters building
of the Guard Regiments, which we could turn into a museum of the Guards.”
The President has approved the idea for such a museum.
-You said that the square should be given a special status, but mass
popular events continue to be held there.
- Practically all these events are agreed with us. There are no longer
any beer festivals here. Having a special status does not mean that the
square should be closed or that we should charge an entrance fee as some
business men have imagined. Palace Square should live, but at the proper
- Can the Hermitage participate in guarding the Alexander Column?
- If we are given charge over the column, then we will be responsible
for its protection. Presently this monument belongs to the Museum of Urban
Sculpture, but negotiations are going on. We would like to take over responsibility
for the whole square.
-In connection with terrorist threats are there heightened security
measures in place in the Hermitage?
- Of course we have taken special measures and we regularly instruct staff
about explosions and flooding. It is not allowed for cars to stand near
the Hermitage. We record the license plates of all vehicles. We all know
the story of the Uffizi, where a car filled with explosives blew up and
several paintings were torn to shreds.
-Is it true that you were the one, Mikhail Borisovich, who back in
the mid-1990’s thought up the idea of linking the museum with sponsors?
- I was just starting out as a director then, and I did not know half
of what was not allowed. I did not invent anything new. This is experience
from around the world. You just should not be embarrassed. And you don’t
even have to beg. People come to you of their own accord. You just have
to create an environment which makes them want to be involved. In fact
sponsorship projects provide up to half of our money. By way of example
we just opened the Hall of Twenty Columns after restoration work: out
of the 500,000 Euros spent, 200,000 were ours and 300,000 came from the
Italians. Sponsors love when you don’t just take their money but offer
them partnership. Lately more of our sponsors are Russians. People in
the West and Americans have started telling us that they are in a period
of crisis, that if in Russia people can buy football teams then the Hermitage
should sort itself out! However, people who pursue this logic didn’t give
us money in the past either. There are others who reason that the Hermitage
is a museum for the whole world.
- How do you feel about the idea of creating a museum of modern art
in the city?
- I am always ‘pro’. We ourselves decided to create a section on new art,
20th century art. For a new museum to arise, you need to have an enthusiast
who will devote his life to it. I liked the idea of putting on a permanent
display in the Varshavsky Train Station, but realism tells me that it
is more likely such a museum will open in Moscow.
-Would you say that your staff in the Hermitage is basically made
up of women? And of snobs, to be sure…
- Women and men are present in equal numbers, but let us say that our
men are more complicated than the women. Snobbism has been part of the
Hermitage style from the distant past. We are the best! Noblesse oblige.
- It would be interesting to know if there are many fans of “Zenith”
in the Hermitage?
- I myself am neither a fan of “Zenith” nor of “Chelsea,” though both
of them have given me a ball and scarf. Russia’s state head of tournaments
and my deputy Georgy Vilinbakhov loves football, and my other deputy Alexei
Bogdanov is a fanatical fan of “Zenith”. Moreover, some years ago the
Hermitage was an overseer of “Zenith” and the players came to the museum
before matches. To be sure we have no statistics to show how this was
correlated with their victories.
-You have another passion, the Orient. We were wondering if you watch
the television station “Al-Jazeera”?
- I regularly watch three Arabic channels. Not long ago the Hermitage
organized an exhibition of Islamic art in London. It was a sensation:
Russia teaches religious tolerance to a country that is at war in Iraq.
-As a specialist in the Orient you basically worked in……
- Yemen. It’s my favorite country and all my books are about Yemen. Recently
I unburdened my heart. I spoke in Arabic with President Saleh, who spent
some time with us in the museum. The only thing bad about being the director
of the Hermitage is that I cannot go on a three month expedition to Yemen.
The full interview is available on the website of the newspaper “Arguments
and Facts – Petersburg”, issue no. 15 dated 14 April 2004, http://www.aif.ru/online/spb