The Third Hermitage War
On 9 December the celebrations of the birthday of the city's main museum came to an end. "The Hermitage expresses its thanks for the birthday gift" - that was the sarcastic conclusion to an open letter describing an event which occurred right in the midst of the celebrations, when the museum was full of people, guests and tours.
A certain Alexei Markov, a 37-year-old Petersburger without a steady job entered the hall of 18th century Russian culture and decided to test the sturdiness of a glass display case containing a priceless exhibit item - a silver and gilded chalice which Tsar Alexander Mikhailovich presented to his son, the future Emperor Peter the Great. He struck it with his elbow, then with his foot - and the case smashed. The malefactor then calmly extracted the chalice. At this point the custodian in the room, an old lady, rushed up to him. "Put that back immediately!" she said sternly. Markov mumbled something to the effect that he just wanted to look more closely at the object and he wanted to go over to the door, but the custodian did not let him get away. Staff from the security force rushed in and seized the unlucky thief. As Piotrovsky declared, both the acoustic alarm system and the visual notification system worked as expected..
"The third Hermitage war is underway," museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky said in so many words at his meeting with journalists. And while there was talk in the silent meeting room about the problems of storage, attribution of things and difficulties of creating an electronic data base - since the collection has to be ‘digitized,' described, labeled and localized in storage areas, as well as the difficulty of moving around 3 million exhibit items, including very small objects like coins, cameos, netske, and items of jewelry - yet another attempted theft was going on in a museum hall.
The official day of the museum's founding is traditionally considered to be 7 December - St Catherine's Day. Therefore each year, at approximately this time, the Hermitage organizes a series of varied activities intended to demonstrate the most diverse areas of its activities, including those with a social orientation.
The museum is a complex and multi-structured organism. It is a place where active scientific research goes on. There is ongoing education, restoration, archeological excavations, and publishing. Each day there are thousands of visitors, and a system of control is in place which includes video observation, acoustical alarms, notification systems, climatic controls…All of this must be kept in working condition, must be updated and modernized regularly.
In light of the unfortunate events which took place last summer, the decision was taken to change the concept of controls. Whereas previously the museum was protected against the outside, now it will also be protected inside: video cameras are being installed everywhere; inspection of staff as they enter and leave will be much more thorough. "In Great Britain it is not customary to check the briefcases of staff," Piotrovsky remarked, " but in the USA security personnel can even ask the Director of the Metropolitan Museum to open his briefcase and no one is upset about it."
The new storage facility in Staraya Derevnya is an ideal place for testing the latest systems of protection and control. All doors here open only with magnetic cards or a key - i.e., one way or the other. The custodian responsible for things has access to a certain collection: only he can open the glass display cases beyond which are the collections of chairs or tapestries or sculptures that are so effectively exhibited for our examination. In this sense, the storage partly takes upon itself museum functions. From the very beginning of its construction, the facility in Staraya Derevnya was intended to be not just a storage but also an educational and cultural center where people living in this residential area of Petersburg could enroll their children in study groups, hear lectures or go on tours.
The educational and cultural center was designed as part of the grandiose Greater Hermitage project. Today's repositioning of the State Hermitage as a typical 21st century museum with a new cultural and entertainment center and grandiose reconstruction and building project in the Hermitage itself and under Senate Square [sic] was planned in the course of the 1990s. The new premises are supposed to exhibit reserve items from storage; the boutiques would be selling copies of Hermitage exhibits; while kitchen utensils and china in the cafe and restaurants would also be copies of Hermitage exhibit items. Unfortunately, the Greater Hermitage is not the most immediate reality of the 21st century. The Guggenheim-Hermitage project in Las Vegas, which opened in 2001 and on which great hopes were placed in terms of finance and image has not justified those hopes.
Several temporary exhibitions were opened to coincide with the Hermitage Week: among them were an exhibition called Return, a name which can mean many things. In a small room they showed off things stolen and later returned to the museum - a total of 32 exhibit items. There are several icons, silverware, a chalice, jewelry. It is generally considered that these items can hardly be called masterpieces. However, the chalice was mentioned in an authoritative publication. In the words of Piotrovsky, collectors specializing in this period had to know that. In response to the suggestion in jest that the museum was just getting rid of ballast, of low-value objects, Piotrovsky objected that the museum has an obligation not only to display things but also to preserve things. Even the most ordinary forks and knives can be of interest to a researcher who is studying changes in the composition of silver alloys in the course of centuries. Therefore, in Piotrovsky's opinion, nothing should be given away. You might create an exchange reserve to be used for exchanging "ordinary" exhibit items with other museums.