View from the Hermitage. Glasnost without Sensation
Recently there was a session of a government commission chaired by Vice Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The commission was formed by order of the President of the Russian Federation to check museums' inventories.
I would call what the commission is doing an audit. With the word 'check' we hear an echo saying 'catch the thieves!' But in essence, all documents and items in the museums' inventories throughout Russia are being studied. This work is much more important and broader than simply catching thieves. A year ago when the commission met for the first time, I, as a member of the commission, made three comments. It is now clear that each of these comments has led to results.
Firstly, we sincerely believed that a thorough check of all museums within two years was impossible. In fact, if one goes through the matter systematically, the mission has already been completed. It is only necessary to understand what needs be checked immediately and what can wait. Some things are to be checked primarily, others secondly, and others thirdly. For museums they are all equally important, but talking in general there are precious items and then there are jewels.
Museum staff and specialists for museum inventories demonstrated that such work can be carried out quickly. Even for pictures we found an algorithm which enabled us to work quickly and reliably authenticate them. We established a system. It became clear that technology for such work was necessary but that its role was still confined only to helping us in our task.
In every museum recordkeeping is always based on a document – an old inventory book. Some mass media were surprised that old inventory books had to be used. They had to be because there is no other documentation and no other documentation can exist. In a museum, the history of an item starts with it being added into the inventory. And this will continue until the item is taken off based on legal documents.
However, it is necessary to understand that the results of even serious and well organized revisions are superficial. The single guarantee of accuracy is continual round the clock monitoring of the museum. In the process of this check the State Hermitage Museum discovered thefts and published them. The noise which the museum made helped get some of the items returned and we found the cause of the problem.
The second comment, which I mentioned at the start of the revision was the need to prepare ourselves for the discovery of lost items. At that time my comments were warily heard. As if to say that should such losses be discovered, your heads won't go. However, the matter is greater than simply the theft of items from the State Hermitage Museum and other Russian museums (as indeed occurs in many museums around the world). The history of Russian museums is such that the majority of the losses are unavoidable. This history testifies to the disregard the government has had for preserving museum items. Their value has always been appreciated, but few have been interested in their preservation.
Palaces were given to museums; monasteries and churches were used as storages. It helped to save churches and monasteries but they were not adapted to store museum items. The redistribution of museum items by the government when it wanted to substitute society with itself is a separate discussion. Now they say that we shouldn't particularly think about or remember the discount sales of the 1920s-1930s. We should. It is a lesson that governments do not have the right to unilaterally dispose of our cultural heritage. Fortunately there are now laws concerning objects of cultural significance. They read that the owner of high-value collections and cultural heritage objects cannot be changed.
This lesson is as important today as ever. What was it that the government did in the 1920s-1930s? It took items, in part redistributing them among museums, while selling others. Today we are also hearing such comments: 'You have a lot which is excessive, lets transfer them to private museums, there they will be looked after well.' (Twenty years ago, we remember, we were told about economics: that the government couldn't deal with the situation and that we should privatize some items, they'll look after them. Now we are having to take them back or repurchase them.)
The Soviet government sold museum treasure secretly, and for that reason they are still included in our inventories. I confess that I was stunned when Dmitry Medvedev offered that we deal with the problems through the legal system. This is a simply staggering turn around in events. Was it legal, for example if the People's Commissariat sold museum items using some flimsy piece of paper? And if not, then perhaps we need to deal with this situation. Find a toe hold which will enable us to carry out negotiations. It is not excluded, that we will be able to get back some items at prices which are not fantastical. At present the entire world is trying to come to terms with sales that occurred during the Second World War. Items are being returned to their owners.
A little digression. When the State plunders museums it creates a particular mentality in the minds of those protecting the museums. You need to find a way of protecting the items, to hide them somewhere. There is a legend that some things were not sold in the 1920s, the museum staff were able to hide them. The relics of Armenian saints in the State Hermitage Museum escaped notice. They were preserved in a silver icon – a masterpiece of jewelry. The icon was exhibited and its interior part with the relics was later found in the Oriental department as if it had been lost. The relics were ceremoniously handed over to the Armenian Orthodox Church. Of course, they were not lost but simply put away for a while. Throughout their history museums have undergone constant reorganization. They have been united, separated and turned into branches. What we can't find at the moment may turn up in branches, we need to search them.
Finally, the third comment I made at the start of our check, at the first meeting of the government commission, was that the results of our review must be as public as possible.
Now, I am uncertain whether I was correct. As soon as it was discovered that some 160,000 items were missing, people started to gloat. Hurray! There are items missing! And there was no desire at all to examine the situation and discover exactly what went missing.
Yes, it is known that 160,000 items have gone missing. These are museum items and they should be where they belong in any situation. But each situation must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Several members of the Commission exclaimed: 'Look! There are 234 disappearances at the Russian Ethnographic Museum.'
Yes that is the case. But those disappearances are parts of clothes and boots, ties of bast shoes, mittens, paper adornments for interiors, fragments of tapestries… In the Russian Museum, the disappeared items include graphic art, which haven't been seen since the exhibitions of the Union of Artists of the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic in the 1980s. We are seeking fragments of archeological material in our Antiquities Section, in other museums, photographs and memorial documents are being sought.
We, of course, do not possess the right to lose anything, but at the same time one must soberly analyze the scale of the losses. It is important to remember that it is only now, at the start of the 21st century that these documents and photographs have been acknowledged as important. In the middle of the 20th century no one paid any attention to them.
I therefore repeat myself. There are items which are being sought, but none of them are masterpieces. And only at the end of two years will it be clear whether they have gone into another place in the same museum, transferred elsewhere or lost entirely.
And as to the rising tide of ill will, I am certain that it arises out of a desire to transfer the entire collection into private hands and to sell it on the market.
But how should one explain all this so that it helps resolve the situation, rather than simply serve as an excuse for continuous hysterics.
I have no single conclusive solution to this question. But I know that the moment has come that we must learn the lesson, to talk it out and consider it. Sensation is unneeded where there is no ground for it. Essentially, there is one reason for sensation and that is that things which were taken from the museum in the 1920s-1930s to this day are included in the museum's inventory. At this stage many storage locations are not equipped with a sufficient number of computer programs necessary for reporting. A museum is not a warehouse, but it is not a centre for insane treasures. Museums exist in order to preserve, study, restore, and show items which represent our cultural heritage. And it is necessary to count everything, in order to have the full picture of what it represents.