Internet meeting with Mikhail Borisovich Piotrovsky
in the Hermitage’s CafeMax
- Dear Mr Piotrovsky: why did you choose specifically Kazan and Krasnodar for your centers?
I would prefer to pose the question somewhat differently, since we do not choose and we do not travel just to check off some cities on a list. We have a major program for making the Hermitage collections as accessible as possible and this is on a world scale. Part of this general program is the program for showing the Hermitage collections within Russia. This takes the form of several projects, and we have finished at the start of this year a large project called "The Hermitage in Siberia" and we began the next project, "The Hermitage Goes to the South of Russia." The project for the South of Russia started in Krasnodar. We prepared an exhibition especially for the South dealing with heroes, the mythology of heroes, and heroes in world art. This exhibition opens on 23 December in Stavropol, then will move to Rostov. In addition, we have our ongoing traditional programs in Kaliningrad, where we are making a series of exhibitions. We have a program in Yekaterinburg. I am using the word "program," because this is not just exhibitions. Alongside the exhibitions, we arrange lectures (in Yekaterinburg there is a school for art restorers), concerts, and master classes for museum staff. In Kazan there is a series of about 10 projects and after a long preparation, we opened a permanent exhibition center for the Hermitage in the Kazan Kremlin. This is a center where we will stage exhibitions once every six months. It is a center with a lecture room for the Hermitage, with children’s study circles run by the Hermitage. We will conduct something like courses on museum management and we will exchange experience with local personnel. Kazan is a place which turned out to be suitable for this kind of center, which costs quite a bit of money. Somewhere I read that "the only center of the Hermitage within Russia is in Kazan." I wish to point out that the Hermitage is the only museum in the world to have created such full-fledged centers and this is a real achievement. Moreover, it takes a great deal of effort, money and commitment to maintain a Hermitage center and at the present moment in all of Russia only Kazan has shown that it has this combination of desire and resources.
- Mr Piotrovsky: Your birthday is coming soon, and allow me to congratulate you. Now there is a struggle going on over Palace Square and the plans for holding a film festival there. I understand your position and I agree with you. But nonetheless the attacks are continuing. What do you think will be the end result? Who will win?
As regards the final result, well, we are not talking about a sporting event. What is at issue is the fate of the city, its monuments and the further development of the use to which our cultural heritage is put. The plan to hold a festival on Palace Square means using Palace Square like some stadium, a free place for constructing pavilions. I think this is absolutely unacceptable, firstly because it is stupid from an aesthetic point of view. Only people who are entirely lacking any taste could set up buildings on the square. Secondly, it absolutely contradicts the existing Regulations on Palace Square, which were adopted after the sculpture on the Arch of the General Staff building was burned during some popular gathering. Moreover, this creates an extremely dangerous terrorist threat amidst the fragile setting of Palace Square, which borders the museum and a military institution. For these reasons I consider that it is completely wrong. I am disturbed to see that there are people who do not understand all of this. I am disturbed to see that in reality we are talking about how our cultural monuments will be used in the future. Are we for turning an easy and quick buck, or are we for the city’s development? I firmly believe that Palace Square should develop and live in harmony with the Hermitage, following its rhythm. This is the main square of Petersburg. Petersburg is no longer the capital, but it is a cultural city, and the cultural institutions of Russia determine what goes on here. This is one interpretation which we have long been putting forward and trying to implement. A different interpretation is that this is a place where commercial institutions will buy and sell the look of a square so as to make events for themselves which people will come to and show off on Palace Square. The content of these events will be insignificant . The only point will be to have a good time and amuse oneself. What is at issue is how we will use or exploit our cultural heritage.
- Dear Mr Piotrovsky: What is your thinking about the impounding of paintings? Will it influence the decision of the Hermitage to send exhibitions abroad in the future?
This is also a question dealing with principles. The question has a worldwide dimension, and just like the question of Palace Square, it is linked to our understanding of why culture exists: is it just property, money, or is it something higher. If it is just property and money, then like other objects - a seat, an automobile, an apartment - it can be seized for debts and taken away. But if it is something higher, then it is indeed higher and you cannot impound an exhibition over economic disputes since it is an entirely different kind of human activity. This is a general problem, the problem of guaranties, and it exists throughout the world. I mean the issue of guaranties for artistic events including art exhibitions when there is a legal action brought by third parties. A good many countries have introduced legislation which protects exhibitions: an exhibition is declared culturally important and it is guaranteed, so that even if a law suit is filed by third persons, there can be no seizure. I think it is our duty now to use the situation which has arisen in Switzerland in order to introduce a certain legal system in those countries where it does not exist. The laws may be different everywhere, but they do ensure a mechanism whereby you can initiate law suits as much as you like but an exhibition should not be seized. Now all museum directors in Great Britain have signed a letter to the Minister of Culture asking for a meeting in order to resolve this issue, since many things will not leave Russia for exhibitions in Great Britain if there are no guaranties. Presently a large delegation is coming to us from Switzerland in order to conduct negotiations over the loan of paintings from the Hermitage. An exhibition should take place in Basel and they are supposed to bring with them documents that will satisfy us. If we are satisfied that this is a true guaranty, then everything will be in order. But first we have to see what kind of documents these are. We await real guaranties with real protection, not just talk about "trying to do everything." I have stated that exhibitions are a kind of gift, a good will gesture to the local organizers where they take place. And, accordingly, good will gestures should be met by normal relations, not by the sort of loutishness that the Swiss authorities showed when they not only placed the artworks under arrest but even turned off the air conditioning.
- What is the Hermitage planning to give out on loan to the world’s museums in the near future?
Firstly, we have the following scheme in place: we have our own exhibition centers with their programs; with the help of these centers we solve all questions. We have a center in the USA, in Las Vegas, where we are preparing a major exhibition entitled Rubens and his Age. For our center in London, we are preparing an exhibition devoted to the culture of Antiquity and Byzantium. In our center in Amsterdam, we now have an exhibition devoted to Byzantium. We are preparing a major exhibition on City and Nature for Japan, a sort of "slice" or cross-section of what the Hermitage has on this topic in various genres.
- Do you have any events to mark the 60th anniversary year of the Victory in WWII? Are there any exhibitions in the Hermitage especially prepared for this date?
The Hermitage is a museum that has lived through a great deal during the war years and can relate many things. In the halls of the Hermitage we now have drawings from the war period telling the viewer how these halls looked during the war. At first we did this for one day, but now these exhibitions are permanent. This year we created a film about the Hermitage during the war and we both arranged and conducted commemorative events on Palace Square together with the city. This was a mystery show of light, cinema and people directed by Alexander Sokurov. I think that we are doing the same thing in the new year - though it all depends on finding the money. In this way we are demonstrating what should be done on Palace Square, the most solemn and festive place in Petersburg.
- Dear Mr Piotrovsky: Where did the Hermitage hide its paintings during the Siege and what part were you unable to save?
We saved everything. Not one item from the Hermitage was lost during the war. We managed to ship about two-thirds of the collection out to the Urals where it was stored in Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg), to be specific, in the Yepatiev House where the tsarist family was executed. The rest remained in the Hermitage, in the basement and in the ground floor rooms (the halls of Antiquity). Tomorrow we will open the Jupiter Hall following restoration work. It has a huge statue of Jupiter, which remained in place. Thus we succeeded in saving everything and that constituted a kind of feat: we preserved the buildings; we defended them from German bombing and from the terrible cold, from the water which could also destroy these buildings. Now 60 years have passed since the war and today it is time to reflect on the war and provide materials about the war in some new genre. I recently held in my hands an Austrian book about the Vienna museum during the war. In that book it is not entirely clear who attacked whom during the war: in one place we see the museum destroyed, in another the places where the paintings were kept. History presents an important problem when you try to imagine how during the Second World War two identical sides fought. They were not identical sides. The war Germany waged in Europe and the war it waged in Russia were entirely different wars.
- Dear Mr. Piotrovsky: what principle do you use to choose items to show in exhibitions in other cities and other countries?
We have moved away from the principle of "traveling exhibitions." I really do not like this term, which suggests that we put on display things we don’t need. Our exhibitions have always been presented as major events, and therefore we show masterpieces brought together around certain themes. For example, for Siberia we prepared an exhibition devoted to an individual’s private life. This is an important part of European culture and however it is expressed in art, whether in genre painting or in items of everyday use, all of this taken together carries an important ideological charge which combines with the highest level of things. The South of Russia is a "place of heroes." Firstly, it is the place where Greek colonies existed in Antiquity. You may call a country "European" if it has roots in Classical Antiquity. Our roots in Antiquity are the South of Russia. One specific feature of Greco-Roman ideology is the cult of heroes. It is embodied in Antique art. Moreover, this is a country where the battles of heroes took place. We cannot yet say that about the Second World War, though we can say it about the wars of Antiquity. It seems to us that this topic is appropriate to the region this side of the Caucasus and the South of Russia, and for this reason in the exhibition we have not only materials from Antiquity relating to the cult of heroes, but also materials telling us about Alexander the Great, about Napoleon and about Peter the Great. In this manner we always choose topics that, it seems to us, have some resonance with a given place and based on this we choose items from the Hermitage collection to show.
- Dear Mr Piotrovsky: Can the Hermitage-Kazan Center become a center for raising the qualifications in museum management of employees from museums around the Volga region? Are there plans to conduct training seminars or round table discussions for museum specialists in the Hermitage Center?
Yes, of course. There are two aspects. The Hermitage is a major educational center. We have our educational program for children in the large Hermitage School Center and our Student Club. We have lecture halls and university departments created jointly with the Hermitage: the Department of History of the Arts in the European University and the Department of Museum Affairs and Protection of Monuments in the St Petersburg University. That is our educational system, and, of course, all our centers will participate in this program in one way or another. Now in London we are beginning a whole program of lectures on the history of the Hermitage. I delivered the first lecture and later the major specialists in art history of Great Britain will appear. In Kazan we also are planning to conduct master classes relating to museum affairs. These should not replace the departments already existing in Kazan, but instead will supplement them and work together with them. Soon the Hermitage will mark its 250th anniversary. We have a great deal of useful and multi-faceted experience.
- Dear Mr. Piotrovsky: Are there plans to make broad use of the models for educational programs created by the Hermitage including your multimedia programs in schools and pre-school institutions (and not only in St Petersburg)?
To be sure, such plans exist. Our website presents a "Virtual Academy" with several courses. These are precisely courses about the Hermitage which talk about Russian art, about the Middle Ages, about art in Classical Antiquity. Moreover, there is material in the Hermitage’s information kiosks, and the same material exists in the form of programs which we give out to various museums around the world. IBM donated to various world museums about 30 such programs. These programs are very interesting for museums in such places as Latin America and Japan. This will continue to develop on our website. The Virtual Hermitage exists both on the site and on CD’s.
- Thousands of tourists from around Russia and from abroad visit the Hermitage, Mr Piotrovsky. What do you think: can the Hermitage cope with such a flow of visitors? Are all the Hermitage departments working at full capacity? Do they all manage to satisfy the tourists?
The Hermitage receives all kinds of tourists. There is a tendency for institutions to rely on tourists. I wouldn’t like to do so, though. Tourism corrupts countries which build their economies on it. Tourists are visitors who have their own interests. We should educate them and not just satisfy their needs. This is not a simple thing, but a person who passes through the Hermitage receives something. We should calculate what he receives. Naturally this should be done in a simple and convenient way, so that the very best is digested. When we have a large influx of tourists, sometimes we have a hard time coping in the summer. When there are really a lot of people, it becomes impossible for anyone who is truly interested in art to see the exhibits in a normal way. Therefore we spend a lot of effort compiling a precise schedule of the arrival of various groups in the Hermitage, so as to avoid crowding. Unfortunately, we do not always succeed in this. The tour companies love to bring everyone at the same hour. There is a big problem finding a place to park the tourist buses. We do a great deal to make the tourists comfortable, but there is a limit. Children need some place to rest, a place where they can play with toys, just as this is done is stores. If adults have brought children to the Hermitage, then they should take them around the museum a bit. The museum is a place to enjoy yourself once you have made the necessary effort. It is important not to go overboard as many museums are doing. You have to combine both convenience and the formal, ceremonial side of a museum. This is one of the most difficult tasks and it is dealt with by our hospitality department. I should mention that we can provide normal conditions for 2.5 million visitors. But not for a greater number of visitors. When we open the Eastern Wing of the General Staff building, things will get easier.
- Dear Mr. Piotrovsky: The Hermitage’s largest exhibition during 2005 was the show devoted to Alexander I, which I liked a lot. What will be the largest exhibition in the Hermitage in 2006?
Next year is the year of Rembrandt. We will have three exhibitions which are elegantly linked to the artist. The first is a large exhibition of Rembrandt’s etchings from the remarkable Ravvinsky collection which was restored thanks to the joint efforts of our restorers and the Dutch. This was a project all by itself, something linked to UNESCO, and I think it will be a great success. Experience has shown that our visitors like etchings and graphics. Love for photographs comes from this love for engravings. Our second exhibition will be devoted to another Dutchman, an American of Dutch descent who is a well-known Abstractionist. And the third exhibition will also have an accent on Holland. It is devoted to Semenov-Tianshansky, our celebrated geographer and politician who put together a collection of Dutch art including painters whose works were not at the time in the Hermitage. He was one of the most visible figures active in the Russian arts market at the end of the 19th century. He bought paintings, many of which later became part of the Hermitage collection.
- Dear Mr. Piotrovsky: During the 60th anniversary of Victory in World War II did the Hermitage realize any projects directed especially to veterans of that war?
There were no special projects as such, but the war veterans always come to the Hermitage. Firstly, they receive full privileges. Please note that the discounts provided are not coming from the State - they are paid for by the museum. Moreover, we arrange special museum tours for the veteran organizations. I already mentioned the ceremony on Palace Square which, I hope, will become a tradition.
- Dear Mr Piotrovsky: Does the Hermitage have staff who worked during the Siege of Leningrad? And do they enjoy any privileges in the Hermitage?
Unfortunately, there is no longer anyone in the Hermitage who was here during the Siege.
- Dear Mr. Piotrovsky: Are there plans in the coming year to open additional centers in Russia? If there are, in which cities?
We will continue the Hermitage’s program in the South of Russia and we will consider other projects. Projects like this take a lot of money, therefore we need special sponsors. We will put on an exhibition in Stavropol and in Rostov. For the moment we have no plans to create other centers in Russia. At present there are no sites where we would like to create them. Sometimes we even refuse to take our exhibitions somewhere when we do not feel there is appropriate respect for the event. I have letters from various cities in Italy asking that we put on exhibitions there. Mayors of cities have arrived asking that we arrange exhibitions.