Interview with the newspaper St Petersburg
This interview took place following the press conference in the State Hermitage on 1 August 2006
- A theft has taken place. The facts are what they are, and this indicates that not everything is fine in the museum’s systems as a whole. We can defend ourselves by saying that something similar can occur anywhere in the world and that the world is going through an upsurge of museum robberies. Unfortunately, it appears that even museum employees are involved in the crimes. I can cite, for example, the case of theft in the Vienna museum which was committed by the person who set the alarm system.
- This brings to mind the attempted theft of a painting at the Russian Museum several years ago. A millionaire tried to steal it, but a colleague of his thwarted the crime. Can it be that museum treasures tempt even those who work in museums?
- The temptation comes from the antiques trade with its unbelievably inflated prices. There can be no doubt that there is temptation provided by the outside world, but you still have to notice the reduced immunity to it in the museum milieu. Formerly we were certain that someone working in a museum would never pose a threat to things kept there. We now have to admit that such a threat exists.
This means that the time has come to consider how to raise accountability and to understand that safekeeping is the first priority in a museum. That used to be the case, but the tradition became somewhat diluted when research work took the first priority. We must admit that some people have come to work for museums by chance rather than out of dedication, and this was not the case in the past. It is apparent that we should separate out custodial work and research work. We have to elevate the significance of the curator both within the museum and outside it. This is necessary and important in present conditions, when money calls the shots all around us and when no one knows where experts in the antique trade come from, though they receive compensation many times greater than museum employees.
We have come to the conclusion that curators should be carefully selected, groomed and pampered. And, obviously, there should be fewer of them than today.
- In light of the theft, doesn’t a question arise about possible lacunae in the way security has been organized?
- We have a system of taking inventory, safeguarding exhibits and security which was built around Custodians, with a capital letter “C.” Gradually it has been restructured with a view to the way the situation around us has changed and the external world has become hostile. This hostile outside world tries to get museums in its grip. Often you hear that museums cannot be trusted. The treasures that are stored there would be better entrusted to other people.
One can look for lacunae in the system of safekeeping, in the security arrangements, keys and alarms. Even if they are eliminated, theft will always be possible. Museums are systems in motion, not static warehouses. Exhibits are constantly moved about. The system has to be improved, but this should be done by ourselves, not imposed from outside. There is a set of recipes available, but they should be applied in a manner that takes into account the specific circumstances of museum life.
First of all, this concerns properly organized storage facilities. I am talking about the storage rooms for museum exhibits that are not on display and not about some closed and armor-plated warehouses. There is no substitute for a properly organized system of internal controls, and these helped us to discover the loss of the exhibits in this case. This means total, 100% inventory taking and not random checks that are done by swooping down on some selected area.
Like any other museum, the Hermitage needs to have an electronic catalogue and we are working on this. We need to have special ålectronic markers on things, and this work is underway. If we turn over this function to outsiders, the humanitarian component of museum management will be lost but the risk of theft will not be diminished. It would involve bringing in a great many people for whom temptation may be greater than it is for those who work here all their lives. We will fight to defend our traditions even now, when this misfortune has occurred.
Perhaps we should perform our checks more quickly considering the number of exhibitions we have. It now appears a contradiction has developed between the task of making exhibits more accessible and safeguarding them. We have to seek a balance and it can be found. We are too open; we show off a lot of what we have. We have weakened our defenses, and now we have to muster our strength and do everything to ensure that museums do not come under outside control. Internal discipline should be tightened, but the museum should not become like a warehouse. This is where inspired people work and it is where people come for inspiration.
- What do you think: will the lost objects be found?
- I think they can be found. Perhaps this will take some time. I recall how in the Kunstkammer a weapon once owned by Nicholas II was stolen. It was found five years later. Experience shows that you should never give up the search. The people who might have been involved in a theft are always marked out. I have in mind one item that was stolen from us. For a long time the FSB kept its eye on possible suspects. And as soon as the thief calmed down, decided that the coast was clear and began to look for buyers, they nabbed him. Our security forces are noted for their persistence, which pays off.