The View from the Hermitage. A Place of Dialogue
Article from the newspaper St Petersburg Vedomosti
In February a seminar entitled "Memory and Universality" took place at the UNESCO headquarters. This event can be called historic in the international life of museums. The seminar was opened by the Director General of UNESCO and was dedicated to universal museums and their relationship with other museums.
Universal museums, also often called encyclopedic museums, present various cultures together and, one can say, reflect imperial history. Among such museums are the Hermitage, the Louvre, the British Museum, the Metropolitan and other museums on a smaller scale. In these institutions things from the whole world have been brought together.
After them, the national museums began to appear. These preserve the culture of one people. Local museums also appeared, preserving the memory of the place where monuments-museums are located....They all basically deal with national self-consciousness rather than the big picture of the world in general.
In the last few decades conflicts have arisen between museums. National and local museums began to lay claims to part of their national heritage which is kept in universal museums. Within UNESCO there was repeated discussion of the problem of the prohibition on exporting cultural treasures and their return to countries of origin.
Several years ago, at the initiative of our colleagues in the Metropolitan, a manifesto of universal museums was signed. This stated that museums uniting various cultures are necessary for humanity. They are the only place on earth where a dialogue of cultures goes on. They can be described by a very appropriate formulation that the writer Milan Kundera applied to Europe: "a maximum of diversity on a minimum of surface area." For example, in the Hermitage there are the Scythians, Rembrandt, Buddhist sculpture and monuments from Antiquity...
The manifesto was published, but we get the feeling that universal museums still have to defend and justify themselves. We must explain that the Elgin marbles were taken from the Parthenon and were exported on a legal basis. The juridical side of the question exists all by itself. The fact is that the world came to know about, understand and appreciate this Greek sculpture only when Europeans began to assemble it in the British Museum. Now it lives in another context and even looks different. In Ancient Greece it was painted.
Due to opposition which arose from something that has nothing to do with science and culture, Encyclopedic museums have shut themselves in somewhat and keep to themselves.
By the way, we in Russia have solved this problem. The masterpieces of Russian art are kept in the Russian Museum, while the Hermitage preserves Russian culture. Two types of museums exist side by side. Among ourselves, we have no problems: there is nothing to return or to demand.
The discussion on "Memory and Universality" was dedicated to the mutual relations between universal and national museums. It was held at the initiative of the Hermitage. We suggested this be used to conclude the Hermitage-UNESCO project. That was a large project created in order to help the Hermitage join worldwide museum life and it fulfilled its function. As a result, an international consultative council was created in the museum which conducted many events. Now we exchange experience with our colleagues on how to live in this complex world.
At the discussion in the UNESCO headquarters, directors of three of the largest encyclopedic museums took part - the Louvre, the British Museum and the Hermitage. On the other side were representatives of the International Union of Museums, UNESCO, museums of Africa and the USA. Among them was the director of the recently opened museum of American Indians.
What was the subject? Legal questions, what belongs to whom - these things have been discussed many times and will be talked about in the future. There is a whole set of documents which make clear what constitutes illegal export. When something is exported illegally, court cases are opened. The mechanism is understandable. The laws work.
Now you have to remember why museums exist: definitely not for the purpose of squabbling with one another. In the final analysis what is preserved in museums belongs to humanity. No one is ever going to destroy the British Museum, the Louvre or the Hermitage. You have to think about how we can use this wealth all together.
Each museum has its own experience. The participants of the seminar shared their experience. The British Museum sends out a lot of traveling exhibitions devoted to the history of civilization. More than twice as many people come to these exhibitions than to the mother institution. London has long been a capital not only for the British. This city has been settled by representatives of many different nationalities. They represent communities and not just separate individuals. The museum holds interesting exhibitions and festivities oriented to the communities - Buddhists, Moslems…You can assume that people coming from Bengladesh will not see back home the kind of monuments of their national culture that the British Museum has.
The Louvre makes joint projects with research and museum circles of countries whence its collections come. It shares its experience with them and trains people. This is very important. Up to now many countries lack professional museum personnel who can preserve cultural treasures.
In my turn I talked about the Hermitage's museum centers in various countries around the world - about exhibitions and lectures in London, Amsterdam and Las Vegas. The reaction was very good. You can judge by the articles published in major publications.
Participants of the conference believed it was a major event in the museum world. Everyone remarked that the Hermitage gathered everyone together in a timely way and opened an important dialogue. Now we can move on. Surely new projects will arise.
The meeting of the museum community coincided with a scandal that broke out in France. This was related to the creation of a museum in Abu Dhabi. The Government of Abu Dhabi decided to build a complex where there will be a museum of modern art, a museum of classical art, a concert center, a museum of naval history.... The Guggenheim will help solve the task, making the museum of modern art. The Government of France suggested that the Louvre take part in the creation of the museum of classical art, which will take its name. It has been proposed that the Louvre will stage exhibitions, bring to Abu Dhabi things from its collections on long term loan, and in return receive a lot of money. The suggestion aroused a wave of indignation in France. Museum managers were angry that there would be commerce in the national treasures.
We also discussed this conflict in the course of our debates. Museums, in the final analysis, do not belong to the people of one country. What is kept in the Louvre belongs to many nations, including those whence this legacy came. In the given instance, it is not really correct to speak of a national heritage. The idea that together we use this heritage does not cause doubts.
It is relevant to say that the pioneers in this movement are the Hermitage and the Guggenheim, who are creating exhibition centers in various countries around the world where they show off their collections. These centers have become events in the cultural life of the countries where they opened. The main thing in these projects is a cultural presence. The French project can be criticized for seeking to extract mad money which even Abu Dhabi is hardly in a position to pay. Museum strategy cannot be developed this way. In this regard, the French Government has already asked the Hermitage to share its experience in organizing, legally registering and handling finances of a museum presence abroad.
This dispute is part of the same problem: to whom does art belong and how do you deal with it. Not only in France, but here also quarrels break out from time to time over why paintings are being taken to London and Amsterdam when people say we need them here for ourselves. The Hermitage also takes exhibitions around Russia, but by no means does every Russian city have as passionate a desire to receive our exhibitions as they do in London or Amsterdam.
Universal museums are often reproached for being too big, for keeping too much in their storerooms. A system of actively holding exhibitions takes care of this problem to a certain extent. But you have to remember that a museum exists not only for the display of exhibit items, but also for their collection and study.
We constantly hear that museums store too much. Just as people say we should share things or sell things. That goes on not only here. Right now in France the fate of a Poussin painting is being decided. The item comes from a private collection and the owners want to sell it. The Government has held the painting for three years and not allowed it to be taken abroad to be sold at auction. During this time France was supposed to collect money in order to buy the canvas. In relation to this story articles appeared in the French press saying that many paintings in the Louvre are not especially needed. They could be sold and the money obtained in this way could be used to buy the Poussin. That is a dangerous idea. Once you embark on this route, things can end up as they did in Russia during the 1930s. Masterpieces left the Hermitage then.
Similar processes are going on in the museum sphere throughout the whole world. Private museums appeared in the West long ago. In America today collectors create museums and manage them themselves. They do this in order not to give the collections to the large museums where curators and art historians are in charge. Even the Guggenheim has long ceased to be the museum of one private collection. Some collectors want to be the boss of their own museum.
This is an interesting phenomenon for our country as well given that
private collections are being created and surely there will be private
museums appearing. I think that the Russian museum world should support
this process. In this space everyone will find his own place.