The Time Has Come to Change Priorities
- In our view the sound and fury around the theft did not match the event. However, it should be used to draw society's attention to the plight of museums.
Last year, on 18 May, the day which is celebrated as International Museum Day, we wanted to conduct an awareness program around the country, to go out on the streets carrying placards and slogans. Then we thought it over and decided that no one will notice something of this sort. We would just spoil the holiday and will get into a dispute with the local governors. I think we were right. Now when this powerful and noisy agitation against the Hermitage has arisen, we can bring our shouts to the attention of not only the government authorities but of society as well.
I will say straight away that there are many puzzling aspects surrounding the theft itself. A sort of detective story is unfolding. We have to await the completion of the investigation.
Regarding the lessons to be learned, it has become obvious that we were busy shaping the image of the museum as an institutions which is beautiful is all respects and which gives people pleasure. Our main concern was to ensure the accessibility of museums and to play a social role. At a certain moment this was necessary - to raise the role and significance of museums in the country, in society at large and in the world. The priority issue for museums became to show off the collections, and safeguarding collections moved into the background. As a result a certain laxity appeared in the custodial function, a certain feeling that this was of secondary importance and that our enthusiasm for this job was flagging. The first and chief lesson which we draw from this experience is that safeguarding the legacy should move to first place.
The second lesson concerns society as a whole. The mass media reflect the state of society. The malicious joy which was evident in newspaper articles, in radio programs and television over what happened in the Hermitage forces us to stop and think. The stratum of society which has insufficient education and culture is growing. This is the result of culture's not ranking among the national priorities. I think it was Dmitry Likhachev who said that the world "culture" should be written first even if it is not given all the money it needs. Ignoring culture can lead to great losses. The wrong people try to get their hands on the national treasures.
The things stolen from the Hermitage are important not so much for what they cost as for the fact that they are part of a collection of Russian art. This collection belongs in the General Staff building, in the halls devoted to Faberge. I see this theft as a forced privatization of part of the Hermitage's collection. This part has fallen into private hands, something which is unthinkable for museum objects. We are often told: you have too much; something should be given over to private people. But nothing should be given away; that is a matter of principle. Even table service made in various ages is a subject of scientific research.
As a result of the theft, we have come into face to face contact with the community of antique dealers. On the one hand, the antique dealers have shown themselves to be better people than we often have thought and said about them. The return of lost items reflects good will on their part. On the other hand, a stream of supposedly independent specialists and antique dealers maliciously attacked the museum. They have taken their revenge for old insults. Their reputations did not allow them come into close association with museum collections. These people today have become very active and were given the chance to attract the attention of the public.
The Hermitage has historically had excellent relations with collectors. A large part of our collections represents gifts from Petersburg and Leningrad collectors. Relations with antique dealers should be cultivated just as museums do in the West. Of course, our antiques market is more criminalized than in the West, but relations with it should nonetheless be set in order. Contact with the antiques world must be developed by relying on the people who have helped us, although we must not forget that among those who returned things to us there are also those with whom you do not shake hands.
Thinking over the future, I don't believe that we have to develop some new museum strategy. The thunder has sounded and we have understood that the work of safeguarding museum collections should be given highest priority. There is nothing terrible about changing priorities. After the Revolution, art treasures had to be gathered up and saved, so that they would not be taken abroad and would not end up in pawn brokers or antique shops. Then came the time to study art objects and to reinterpret history. This was followed by the time to make museums accessible and interesting for people. A new generation of museum managers has to be pointed in the direction of safekeeping. Perhaps we should think seriously about a system of training specialists in this area.
It is understandable that in the near future we must forego all kinds of exhibitions. The public character of the museum has come into conflict with the custodial function.
The audit of the cultural heritage which will be carried out by a special Presidential Commission will essentially open up the history of formation of museum collections during the Soviet period. The audit will reveal the general picture. We should be prepared for the likelihood that not everything will be brought out. The history of the formation of museum collections is long and confused. Collections were nationalized, were gathered together, then sometimes were broken up and distributed among various museums across the country. The State sold off some things and gave other things away. You must not forget about the evacuations during the wartime years. In the postwar period, inventories of art objects were often done by very young and inexperienced people who made mistakes. As a result, we have huge stores of art objects that are not kept in the best manner possible. After checking we will get the full picture of the system of museum management in the country accurately described.
This material can be the basis for building a computer model of a national security program for the country's cultural heritage. We have spoken about this at a special session of the Union of Russian Museums. On the basis of the results of the audit it will be easy to compile a business plan and to understand what should be done first. This plan will encompass museum storage facilities and necessarily archeological sites. It will cover the system of safeguarding objects, computerization, coding and marking objects, insurance...
Clearly, the review should be done quickly. In order to have an idea of how much time is needed, I can say that it takes at least one hour for an investigator to file a description of each item that is now being returned to us. This means that first you have to assign the priorities for the checking. In the storage of the Russian section where the theft occurred there are many items that are only rarely put on exhibition. There was no demand made on the storage section before we began preparing for the Nicholas and Alexandra exhibition. A museum is a living organism which has been created over time and everything in it is valuable.
I am now asked how I predict things will develop. Let's see how the audit of museums goes. Is this going to be a witch hunt and search for compromising materials to be used against museums and museum managers is will it be constructive? We must apply all our effort to ensure that the tragic situation serves as a stimulus to further develop the cause of museums.