Hermitage View: Road to the East
A week ago I returned from China where the largest Chinese media group, which has no fewer than ten television channels and fifteen papers, was holding cultural forums. They invited people from all over the world and organized discussions.
In our case the forum was concerning museums. It was held in a huge hall with a thousand places and direct television broadcasting, publications in the press and advertising on the streets... The directors of the largest museums in the world came to Shanghai. There were directors from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, the State Hermitage Museum and the deputy director of the Louvre. From the Chinese side the director of the Shanghai Art Museum and the director of the Gugong Palace Museum in Beijing.
Seventeen million people live in Shanghai, the city is packed with culture. The Shanghai Art Museum is one of the best in the world. At international museum conferences, when we discuss who to invite from China, the first museum we ask is this one. It is running a colossal exhibition, and its employees are literally streaming to the West for training.
The museum community discussed serious issues in Shanghai. We discussed how to share the museums’ heritage. This was the subject of the meeting. We signed a declaration that we will support each other, to help develop museum exchanges and cultural links. The document talks about cooperation between museums in moving civilization forwards and of the shared use of our legacy.
The media group also placed its signature at the bottom of the declaration. This means that the forum organizers will do their utmost to finance exhibitions, hold meetings in different locations. It is already known that the next meeting will be held at Columbia University. Another one will possibly be held in Russia. To put it another way, the Chinese are prepared to support cultural globalisation. They understand the meaning of culture and realize its role and show respect for it. The Chinese conference was a mark of respect to culture, a mark of respect to museums, to the specifics of museum life. Incidentally, the previous forum was dedicated to librarianship.
The general impression of China is of a young country. Young people everywhere, many of whom have travelled around the world.
In his time Count Muraviev-Amursky was a diplomat and the governor of East Siberia, based on a feeling of now or never, he established a new border with China. At the moment there is also such a feeling. I think that the time has come for us to return our cultural presence to this country. We have had varying relations. For the past forty years at the State Hermitage Museum there has not been a single exhibition from China. Only this year, which has become Year of China in Russia have we received two, large, wonderful exhibitions which have made us a little more familiar with Chinese culture, we have began to develop these links.
At the forum in Shanghai the directors of all the largest museums made speeches – they are all striking orators. But it was clear that it was the Russian participant that the organizers in particular wanted to hear. The arrival of the State Hermitage Museum as one of the largest in the world was important to them. For them, it is Russia in the new, global context, and their expectations were linked with this. At the forum I spoke about what an encyclopaedic museum and what a national museum are, both of which are joined together at the State Hermitage Museum, and how from conservatism modernity is born. The idea that conservatism is the engine of modernity was liked by all – but that isn’t the point. They often said things to me like: ‘Our parents were taught Russian’ or ‘I learnt Russian when I was little.’ But now the young do not know Russian.
Many remember that cultural links between our countries were beneficial. The moment has come when the memory of our cooperation may be forgotten. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is doing Chinese exhibitions, 15 people come to the museum on internships from China. The British Museum is also holding Chinese exhibitions. In relation to this country there is a clear activity on the part of the West. This was the case in the time of Muraviev-Amursky who wrote that it was necessary to take Amur River otherwise the British would do so.
The time has come when we must increase our contact with China and the Chinese who live with us. It is a huge part of the world where we should be present. There is a sensation of this need. But most importantly, the chance has arisen for us to preserve and strengthen Russian cultural communication. It is necessary simply to find an area of common interest. Then we won’t get hysterical when they start building a China Town here.
We signed an agreement on cooperation with the Shanghai Museum. It includes exhibitions, internships, post-graduate exchanges, and exchanges for researchers. We have agreed that in 2010 we will organize a large exhibition from Shanghai at the State Hermitage Museum and two in Shanghai. One will focus on imperial life. It is possible that the exhibition may combine ancient Chinese culture and the culture of the nomadic peoples of Central Asia – the Scythians and the Sarmatians. Chinese bronze work retains noticeable traces of the animal style. The nomads moved from the East, they carried with them part of the Chinese culture – became Scythians, Asiatic peoples…Ancient globalization is a fascinating subject.
China is a long way away, organizing communication is not easy, but now it is possible. The State Hermitage Museum is creating its own line for ‘Expansion to the East’. We are continuing our programme ‘The Hermitage in Siberia’, conducting negotiations with Khabarovsk, where a new art museum is being constructed. There will be exhibition exchanges with Shanghai, then we will see. The movement to the East we are starting with Siberia and Amur River.
I would like to say that the museum meetings are useful for all relations. The trip to China was not propagandistic. We didn’t only sign agreements but also talked with our western and Chinese colleagues. With the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art we constantly check our actions. There is an exchange of experience, exhibitions and people.
It is interesting that just two weeks before our meetings, the Chinese museums became free of charge. Not all, though. For example, the Gugong Imperial Museum in Beijing, which is visited by nine million people a year retained its charges. The argument was that there are many tourists. Groups must be carefully timed, and single free visitors can’t be squeezed in... The Shanghai Art Museum was free but problems arose. On the weekends there were so many people that it becomes clear that prices regulate queue length. The experts so far don’t know what to do. The experiment continues. Of course, the government compensates the museums for their loss of income.
And we would cancel our charges if the state would compensate us the ten million dollars that make on entrance tickets. Incidentally, we have one more additional, one can almost call it a ‘national’ problem the criminal situation which private tourism creates. In Shanghai the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art said at some stage: ‘There are as many people here as in India, but no one tugs you on your trousers and begs for money’.
Our tourist industry is similar to the Indian, it pesters everybody and obtrusively makes various offers... People come to the museum and dishonest guides, souvenir sellers throw themselves on the tourists... It is beyond the museum’s resources to deal with this problem. We make raids, we try to deal with the problem with the aid of the police, but the sensation remains that in the centre of the city there are spots which need cleaning. And people start relating to the museum as if it were a train station.
It is necessary to establish a precise system for tourism. In China this is more or less achieved thanks to strict state controls. But what can we do? Which methods work?
In general, we again return to the old discussions about the significance and meaning of culture, which should have its own regime.