- Your father, Boris Borisovich Piotrovsky, was head of the State Hermitage Museum in a period, poorly suited for changes, this included changes in museums too. Nonetheless, he did succeed in making many changes. The most important was that he cut a window into Europe for the State Hermitage Museum, bringing it into the view of the international cultural arena. You took over the museum in 1992 - plainly speaking it was not the best of times. What was it that you encountered first at that time?
- The museum I took over was in a reasonable state. The State Hermitage Museum had not suffered any particular blows. Two things upset me. Firstly, for several years the museum had had practically no financing, its facade, interiors were severely dilapidated, everything needed to be repaired. And secondly, there was a very wretched atmosphere within the museum.
- The usual nervousness associated with a change of management? The appearance of faction with the museum, internal feuds?
- No, something quite different. More precisely it was based on politics. The mood on the streets was brought into the museum. And people instead of being involved in the work of the museum, constantly tried to find out who thought what, who people supported, in what direction was the country heading, how was to blame, what should be done. We all argued with each other about politics.
- The staff was so highly politicized?
- Much above the usual level. The same thing happened in the 1920s. People used to say things like: "I should have this position because I am better suited to the political moment".
When I took over there were such conversations: "You are better suited?! Better you stay quiet. What did you do before 1991?!" Street politics broke into the museum through the staff entrance and gave people the opportunity to vent personal grievances, to blame one's failures on someone else, project old complexes onto others. This created lots of internal tensions, which were completely unacceptable in a national museum, where the most important thing is stability and fixed traditions.
- You believe that museum staff should not be involved in politics?
- They can be involved in politics, but not in political struggles which occurred in the streets. Since this can result in the destruction of the museum. A healthy conservatism is essential for museum employees. As to politics we will nonetheless always be somehow involved. I have in mind cultural politics, in which we are all obliged to participate to some extent. But when necessary, the director of the State Hermitage Museum must maintain his distance from politics and not allow its destructive forces influence the traditions of the museum, it is against the interests of the museum.
- Do you consider yourself a successful person?
- Yes. Once long ago someone asked me what I wanted to achieve in live. I answered that I wanted to become a good Arabic specialist. I became a good Arabic specialist. Secondly, I responded that I wanted to be worthy of my father's memory. I think that this is also the case. It seems to me that he would approve of my work.
- And what do you consider to be success?
- Success is an internal satisfaction with what you have achieved, which is shared with people whose opinion is important to you.
- And what would you call a successful museum in this day and age?
- I think that a successful museum is one which preserves its traditions, heritage and reputation. The reputation of the State Hermitage Museum as one of the largest museums in the world must be maintained forever. The success of the museum is determined by the public attention to it, the number and quality of its projects, new expositions with new publications and new expeditions. We sometimes do things which are possibly not considered valuable at the time, but which must be done if we are certain that they are necessary.
- What does it feel like to be the chief guardian of something which is priceless? Can you get used to it?
- You could never get used to the Hermitage Museum. Here an internal excitement overtakes each and everyone. But when you are also responsible for it, when you have two telephones beside your bed so that you can be phoned at any moment in event of a fire or flood... God forbid, but naturally one must be always be ready for such events - to get used to it, to become complacent is forbidden. When various unpleasant events start to brew and my wife begins to get nervous about them, I say: "Well what of it? It's included in my job description ".
- When in the Summer of 2006 the world wide sensation broke into the press that more than two hundred items of art had disappeared from the State Hermitage Museum -what did you feel? Was this a shock to you?
- No, there was no shock since we discovered the disappearances ourselves.
- Were there doubts about whether to announce it or not?
- Of course there were doubts. You see, theoretically it was not necessary to announce it, or to announce it but not so loudly. Similar thefts have occurred overseas, and in large museums, but there, not much of a fuss was made about it. It also happened in our museums. But, initially, I believed that honesty was the best policy: all of our problems and difficulties we always announce in public, and if necessary immediately organize a press conference.
Secondly, in this theft a lot of things were unknown and unclear. How could someone remove items which had been entrusted to him for protection? To carry away one at a time over two-hundred items - you need some nerves for that! And is it conceivable that he did this in front of all of us in the museum and no one suspected anything, and in the antique's world no one noticed that goods were turning up which had been stolen from the State Hermitage? There was a feeling that it just wasn't that simple, that there was some unseen controversy at the time: who would announce it first? We announced it first. And before we announced it, we prepared the necessary material so that all the people responsible who we were obligated to inform found out about it not from the police or the press but from us.
- Did you inform the country's government? Or only the ministry of culture?
- We informed everyone who we had to inform in such events. On Friday I sent documents to Moscow and made sure that they would be delivered to the addressees, and on Monday morning I rang the police. And then immediately organized a press-conference.
- And the stream of articles, which poured out the following day and continued to spurt for the next three weeks did not shock you?
- Yes, here, I suppose, was something to be shocked by. Several publications in each issue printed articles full of ill will, and at times even gloated. With an explicit hint: as if to say if even government museums are not in the condition to protect valuable, cultural items, which are of national importance, then we should establish private museums, they will deal with this problem. Somewhere this idea was openly published, elsewhere slightly camouflaged, but nonetheless there was a thrust all the same. So, things were not easy. I said at the time and I am prepared to repeat myself now that I see nothing more in this than an attempt to plunder our collections. What we have left in state ownership is not very much. But here - we have an untouched resource with a good deal of room for privatization.
- After what has happened, have you been able to improve the conditions for protecting the Hermitage Museum's collections?
- We continue to do what we did before, but we have been able to concentrate our resources. In our new storage rooms we are completing a second line of construction work. Now at last, everyone understands how important our collection is. I think that following this scandal we have managed to raise government awareness of the conditions of not only the State Hermitage Museum but all of our museums.
- Do you have any favourite halls which you visit not out of necessity but joy?
- In general I go to favourite halls in other museums. At the State Hermitage Museum it's practically impossible, here the Director's eye always notices something not connected with art.
- But do you sometimes have the desire to visit any particular hall?
- Often there is a desire to visit various halls.
- Depending on mood?
- Well, probably.
- Will you not tell us what these halls are?
- No I won't say. The same as I do not say who my favourite artists are. I have a few favourites but I never say which. I am the director of the State Hermitage Museum, one of the top three museums in the world. My personal aesthetic predilections should be of no interest to anyone.
- You have had to accompany royalty and presidents. What were the impressions that they have left you?
- I, for instance, am persuaded that American presidents are not nearly
as limited in their vision as Americans usually claim, both Clinton and
Bush. They both prepared for their visit to the State Hermitage Museum
and it was noticeable. They were sincerely impressed and enthusiastic.
Clinton even became side-tracked in one of the halls, and his body-guards
whispered in my ear: “Hey, lets finish up here, its time to leave.”
- To whose authority is the Hermitage subject?
- The Hermitage Museum is subject to the Federal authorities, it is a federal establishment. By decree of the president, the State Hermitage Museum is protected by the head of government. According to presidential decree the State Hermitage has its own independent section in the state budget, which each year we must defend, since many colleagues dislike it. And we are subject to the will of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography.
- Has the State Hermitage Museum learnt to make money?
- We manage to prove that we are able to make money. Simultaneously we have learnt to understand what we shouldn't make money on.
- And what's that?
- Well, for example, we shouldn't allow someone to rent out the Hermitage building and celebrate their birthday in the Winter Palace.
- And why not? Other museums rent out their halls for various presentations and parties.
- We cannot do this with the State Hermitage Museum because of its status and traditions, and therefore there is a lot which other museums can be permitted to do which we can't. I am responsible for the State Hermitage Museum. And I say that in our museum we will not do this. We do have many events in the Hermitage: annual gala-functions, charitable campaigns... But these are our events, connected with Hermitage events. Furthermore, we cannot demand payment for something which is displayed in the State Hermitage Museum. I also consider that the government, represented by the Hermitage does not have the right to sell items from the State Hermitage Museum collection,.
- The Americans sell items.
- The Americans never sell anything from the Washington National Gallery. For the rest there is that possibility. But I relate to it negatively. I, as a director, do not have the right to say: "These paintings are so bad, so unworthy of the State Hermitage Museum that they should be sold". Everything which enters the museum must remain in it to be transferred to the next generation. We can diversify our exhibition policies, we can decide that today we will display something or not display something. But we do not have the moral right to refuse an item. In the time of Nicholas I pictures were sold from the Hermitage. As a result, even to this day there are itmes which need to be returned, to be bought back. It is a good thing that everything that was sold within Russia has now been returned. But following the Imperial sale the Soviet government sold numerous items from the State Hermitage collection. The result is much greater than being simply a pity.
- Simply to become involved in business and make money at the expense of the museum's culture, is in your opinion unnecessary. Do you think it is appropriate to have the image of the State Hermitage Museum on bottles of Italian wine and Coca-Cola?
- It's ok. The Italian wine is produced by the State Hermitage Museum itself according to an agreement with an Italian firm. And we use it at out receptions. We also have “Hermitage” sweets, we produce books and chocolates in accordance to the Hermitage Rules established by Catherine the Great. This is all part of our marketing. As to Coca-Cola... Yes, we permit the use of the State Hermitage Museum image on its bottles. I believe that the people must be reminded of the State Hermitage Museum using all possible means. The Hermitage is a brand. And we are obliged to advance it. Incidentally, Coca-Cola was the first company, which came to us and said: “Do you know what we can do for you?” And today the money from the sale of that series of bottles, with the Hermitage goes into supporting numerous projects that we have.
- To what extent does the Director of the Hermitage have to be a businessman and manager?
- Exactly to that extent which is necessary to enable him to properly handle the museum's business. I suppose that maybe he needs to be one third of a businessman, no more. First and foremost, he should be a scholar. It is a European tradition. I cannot run the Hermitage Museum if I stop reading lectures, writing articles, publishing books. The museum director must actively live in the sphere of the museum's work. In order to understand the criteria and make decisions not for monetary advantage, although this is not excluded, but to think with the cultural perspective of the day both international and national.
- Scientific baggage helps you to be an effective manager or, contrarily, prevents you from taking decisions, loads you with doubts, makes you think too much?
- It really does help. It helps out at many level in the things I do as a director. And then, I have quite a lot of archaeological experience. Archaeology is one discipline which in the Soviet period combined management, fundraising, science and a cunning way of reporting finances. So you see, with my archaeological experience it is easier for me to get accustomed to the market, which at the same time does require to be regulated. By what? Probably, by conscience.
- Do you have a private art collection?
- No. I believe that a museum director should not be involved in collecting, it may lead to a conflict of interest.
- What exactly could conflict?
- Well, logically, a director would not steal anything from the museum collection. Simply he might buy a picture for himself rather than for the museum - that would be a conflict. Although, for example, the former director of the Louvre Pierre Rosenberg - was a famous collector. There is not general regulation for this.
- And can you forgive somebody, and what can't you forgive?
- I cannot forgive black envy, which leads to certain actions. I cannot, probably, forgive treachery. Everything else I am capable of forgiving. I have almost forgiven many people who have done things which are unworthy. But I do not forget and not because I am vindictive, simply because I have a good memory.