Interview with the Journal of St Petersburg
- Mikhail Borisovich, the Department of Museum Affairs and Protection of Monuments has begun to function. Can you summarize for us the results of this department's work so far?
- It is rather early to draw up conclusions. It will be possible to say something concrete only after five years, when the students prove themselves in practical work. But there is a certain growth and signs of maturity in the department itself. On the one hand, we have just been discussing our participation in the Herald of St Petersburg University. A very interesting collection of articles from the department is being prepared. There are methodology seminars by members of the faculty. All together this is proof that the philosophy of our common project has taken shape. In addition, we have established relations with similar departments at other universities, in particular with the University of Culture, with whom we have had a whole series of seminars. There is a unique system of participation by Petersburg museums in the training of students. The department was initiated to be a joint work between museums - the Hermitage, the Russian Museum, the Museum of Ethnography. One course is permanently given in the Hermitage's storage facility - which is the newest custom-built art storage on world-class level. Even if people just sit there one hour a week, they enter the world of modern museum life - security, alarms, climate control, reporting. Other activities are regularly held in the building of the General Staff in the operations center of the Greater Hermitage project. There students hear lectures on conservation of monuments from within one such monument, where there are displays of schematics, models, architectural plans. The theories of museum management still have to be created. The main thing today is the practice of high class museum management. I think the process is going well. It is of good quality and interesting.
- The entering class has very few students - just 14 people. What can you tell us about them?
- I think that 14 people is a lot. I graduated from the Oriental Department and am sure that a group of more than 5 people is already a crowd. The first year went by. All the students passed their exams very well. None was disappointed with his choice, nor are we disappointed in ours, since they are all smart, talented and enthusiastic about what they have to learn. For the moment everything is going fine.
- There is the world view of an historian and personal qualities that are essential to a journalist. What kind of world view should a museum official have?
- This is a very important question. A museum official should have very clear qualifications in his basic specialty. In the final analysis the staff is divided into historians, connoisseurs of art, and archeologists. The employee should clearly appreciate the museum specifics of one or another profession. He should understand the museum specifics of history, of art. We intend to introduce special courses: the museum aspect of archeology, the museum aspect of history. Museum management entails collecting, studying and telling. Normal historical research entails study and recording for devotees. It does not involve collecting and telling. What collecting there is - is for oneself and for one's topic.But here we have collecting in general in the course of which a topic for research is assigned. And there is a much broader presentation of the results of one's work to the public. It is a constant mixture of scholarly research and popularizing, educational work. Both these elements should be aligned. If there is just scholarly research without popularization, then what you get is the museum equivalent of a book worm, and the public function of museums is not fulfilled. Just popularization without science is a kind of campaign against illiteracy and not a serious museum institution. The combination of popularizing educational work and profound scholarly investigation is the foundation of museum work.
- In museum affairs is there room for experiment? I recall the exhibition Swamp Gold by the artist Anatoly Belkin which was shown last autumn in the General Staff building.
- Of course, there is room for new directions.... in research and in popularization as well as in demonstration. But this has to be done in such a way that work is not just made up of experiments. There should be a continuous line in the life of the museum and some permanent exhibition which everyone knows and which generations of people grow up with. Or there should be a certain selection of tours, lectures about the main exhibition, a general scheme which will be altered only if there is genuine need. The exhibition Swamp Gold is a good example of an experiment in the Hermitage's working with modern art. We are not active in modern art in general, especially in modern Russian art. This is the prerogative of the Russian Museum, whose staff knows the field; they should stimulate and direct the development of Russian art. But sometimes the Hermitage can experiment and choose for itself a direction for contact with topical modern art. There you have the history of the swamp dwarf civilization - a very positive experience. I immediately sent Anatoly Belkin to see our archeologists, and they began to work together and to dream up this funny art of swamp pygmies. As a result what we got was a combination of two approaches: fantasy on a high artistic level, from the side of Belkin; and the knowledge of what is possible and what is never possible, from the side of the archeologists. In the end we got a genuine Hermitage exhibition, and it has its practical outcome. Now we are creating new rooms for blind children, and some of Belkin's archeological objects will be used there for work with the children. We got a very good result.
Another experiment of ours in modern art has been the exhibition of Vadim Voinov. He is an historian of cities. He makes collages from various everyday objects that he finds in ruined residential buildings. This matches well with the process that is going on in the General Staff building. We are reconstructing it and half of the building is in ruins. That is where we have arranged the exhibition. This is already Voinov's third exhibition in the Hermitage. That is really something: who can have three exhibitions in the Hermitage?
One very fresh experiment is the exhibition of Limoges enamel. They were for the first time exhibited together with the engravings which served as models when they were created. In my opinion, what resulted was just amazing. As for bad results, failed experiments - I cannot think of any.
Of course you have to experiment, you have to bring an element of theatricality to exhibitions. To be sure, you should not overdo it and turn an exhibition into Disneyland. Museums work with genuine articles - and this is the main rule. As soon as "virtual" and theatricality begin to predominate, you get Lord knows what - cinema, a show - and you no longer have a museum.
- Let's return to the qualities required of a modern museum official. Now he should have skills in the sphere of business and management. These are things which in our everyday understanding are not strongly associated with the image of museum staff.
- Why is the association weak? What is changing is the vocabulary. "Management" means running things. "Fundraising" means looking for money and financing. These are things that were always present among Russians working in the humanities. Why is it that during almost the entire course of the 20th century the directors of the Hermitage were archeologists? This was so, because the archeologist did not only know how to investigate and dig: he had to find money for the expedition and people who would work for the money, and then he still had to know how to account properly for the money. Therefore the skills of an archeologist are also the skills of management, though they may be oriented to science and culture and not to making a profit.
This is very important: where do we put the stress - on getting money or on achieving a concrete result. This is where the paths between management and running cultural institutions diverge. I am a firm believer in the European position rather than the American one in these matters: directors of museums should be historians, archeologists and art connoisseurs who have received the skills of management. It should definitely not be the other way around. This is because professional managers today are people oriented towards income. That is their only criterion. However, in museums there are other criteria...and a different result. There are ways of earning income which must not be applied in museums.
What is a manager? This is a person who knows how to lead, to direct. This is just like what we had previously - Party workers. A person holds the right ideology - that means he can lead. He can be appointed as ambassador, premier minister, director of a museum. People have the same idea today: that someone with the skills of business can run anything at all. But this is not right. The past several difficult years have shown that practically all museum staff and leaders have learned to live under modern conditions. In museums the variety of functions that the museum performs for society has expanded considerably. We have gained experience of survival in the specific capitalistic jungles which have arisen around us and now we are sharing this experience with foreign colleagues.
- The "capitalistic jungles" you have just mentioned are now advancing on Petersburg. The old city is changing and disappearing. How is this process reflected in the students' program? After all, their specialty has to do with the protection of monuments.
- The protection of monuments is a very important specialty which society badly needs nowadays. We ought to teach the students to understand exactly what a "monument" means. A specialist ought to know that there are things which should never be allowed whatever the circumstances.
The specialist should be acquainted with the whole subtle scheme of subterfuges and administrative tricks. I think that in the area of protecting monuments we are preparing not so much architects and archeologist as superbly educated government officials who will later deal with the problem of protecting monuments from society at all levels. Just as today the Environmental Protection authorities in our country protect nature in a more professional manner and work more closely with the militia.
It is important for our students to study firstly how to impart on society the genuine idea of protection and secondly how to carry this out in real life. In the case of museum buildings there is always the conflict between protecting monuments and the demands of time. Builders come to me and say: "Mikhail Borisovich, stop this disgrace - we are putting down a water pipe and some archeologists intervene and tell us we cannot do anything until they have excavated everything." The archeologists come and tell me: "These technicians have again dug everything up, though here there is a wall from the 17th century and they want to knock a hole in it for their pipe!" And so we always have to sort out relations. We have to precisely understand the essence of the problem. Besides knowledge we need intuition. Some decisions should be taken by people who understand that you just don't set up big tents in the middle of Palace Square - by people who understand that you must not spoil the view of Palace Square even if it is to serve some noble cause.