A View from the Hermitage. Pernicious Myth about
An example of a classical myth is the heroic attack on the Winter Palace. The myth was created by director Sergei Eisenstein who in his film portrayed a brutal attack where people were killed. The film was so persuasive that even a realistic description of the events by John Reed could not change anything.
I myself am interested in the phenomenon of myths only because there are so many of them surrounding culture, and in particular museums.
The primary museum myth is that about the Treasure. With time we have lost the meaning of this word as something very important to the humanity, and not simply golden artefacts and diamonds. There is a firm belief that museums house treasures that can be taken out and sold on the market to solve certain issues. This belief is followed by bewilderment of why we do not see these treasures and where they have gone.
The myth about treasures is very pernicious. It creates an image of a strange place where mischievous people keep overwhelming riches in dungeons.
It also helps create an image of a museum worker who is a miserable person
with low salary (hence possibly having sticky fingers). Daniil Aleksandrovich
Granin often remembers a commercial with a slogan "Itís a shame to be poor".
It is a
During the Soviet era one of the excuses to criticise the Hermitage was the fact that its staff included too many people with "improper" noble surnames. This was the time with the prevailing stereotype that portrayed a museum worker as a man from the past, an untrustworthy conspirator. There is a joke about the Hermitage director Mr. Orbeli. He was summoned to come to the Regional Party Committee where it was pointed out to him that the museum employed too many people of noble descent, which was wrong. Mr. Orbeli answered that he did not know much about it since he traced his own family line back to 9th century, when Russia had not known what nobility was.
If one was to believe myths, then it would turn out that people who work in museums are not to be trusted. Over the years different articles were published exposing saboteurs working at the Hermitage. So when you read articles or watch TV shows which make you be suspicious of museum workers, there is nothing unusual about it. Only now the premise for this has changed. Previously they could not be trusted because they belonged to the rich, now they cannot be trusted because they are poor.
Even Tsar Nicholas I remarked that there was no order in museums. Museum history is a long and complicated one. Their mergers, separations, and redistribution have made document workflow and record keeping very complex. At present museums are trying to fix this. During audit we clean Augean stables that sprang up as a result of the state neglect of the issues of museum preservation, record keeping, and control.
This entails another wide-spread myth about substitutions and counterfeits. There is no such this as substitutions in museums. Masterpieces are on display there and available for everybody to look at, they undergo a great number of examinations and cannot be substituted or forged. It is so hard that nobody would even try to do it. Another situation is on the market that is not connected with museums. There is a legend that when icons were sold to the American ambassador in Moscow in the 1920ís, artists and restorers either forged or substituted them. It is a beautiful patriotic legend, but I think it is completely bogus. I can neither believe the legend about museum custodians hiding paintings so as not to let them be sold. It was not altogether easy to hide them, although there was, of course, a desire to stash these pieces of art away and avoid being deprived of them.
The myth about everything having been sold dates back to the 1920ís when the government was selling museum inventory. Taking todayís logic it would be stupid not to sell if there is a possibility to get some money for it. The Soviet government was tempted to take some artefacts out of museum repositories and thus solve some of its problems. But the resulting financial benefit of selling museum inventory on the market is not so great. However, selling it can get you influence or other peopleís favours.
I read a letter once in which its author wrote that his parents had apparently survived because in the 1920ís the government had been selling paintings from museums. The government knew what it was doing. In fact, by selling paintings to Andrew Mellon it created conditions for a breakthrough into the American market. It was a very cunning operation that helped the USSR build its tractor and military factories. But still the state has no right to sell the countryís cultural valuables. As it has no right of ownership over them. It is the question of principle. The state has to accept these valuable objects, preserve them and pass on to future generations. It is not right to fight any crisis that the country might face by selling its cultural heritage. The damage from the point of view of reputation will be much greater than the financial gains.
A very popular myth is the one about the art belonging to the people and museums not showcasing everything they have in their repositories is caused by the wrong understanding of the museums purpose. They are cultural organisations working to keep, collect, restore, study and transfer cultural heritage to future generations, and in particular, to show this heritage to people. They show what attracts the most interest and what can be showcases given the exposition areas and artefacts condition. A museum is not a warehouse and not a gallery that displays everything. It lives by special laws that entail special record keeping procedures, special audits, etc. A museum creates cultural products, i.e. exhibitions, books, scientific research. It differentiates between the notions of "accessibility" and "exhibiting". The problem of accessibility is resolved by means of exhibitions, Internet, open storage.
Very often the value of things is determined by the fact that they form part of museum collections. Outside of a museum many artefacts will appear not that valuable. A glove that belonged to Alexander II without the museum authenticating if is worth not that much. Wrong understanding of the value leads to perceiving art as merchandise. In customs documents museum valuables are referred to as merchandise and they go the same registration procedure. This implies the same restrictions and suspicions as might apply to normal merchandise. When we talk about culture, customs should have different schemes for museum artefacts and even different suspicions.
Many myths have something
The myth about us depriving ourselves of something by giving it to foreigners can hinder our cultural policy. It is particularly important now, and I shall repeat myself, when our competitive advantage is knowledge, science, and culture.
Finally, the most cherished myths about culture are those about obedience and struggle with authorities. As a matter of fact, culture is above politics. The Hermitage is the best proof of that. At different times its directors were either called minions of the Soviet government or alleged to have been plotting against it. People working in the cultural sphere have to ensure that their cause is not affected by any political situation. They have always achieved this by various means, i.e. scandals, confrontations, ploys, and even intrigues. The mythologeme of a fighter or no fighter against regime cannot be applied to culture.
A nation is not reach at the expense of what can be sold on the market. Its cultural wealth is unmarketable. However, it is of huge benefit as it does not lose value with time but can only be accumulated and is not destroyed when consumed. This presents its economical value and becomes particularly important now.