The Hermitage Days are celebrated in St Petersburg from December 7 till 9. They are timed to the birthday of the main museum of our country: to December 7, the Day of St Catherine. That colossal museum complex that we know today started its existence 245 years ago from the collections of paintings purchased by Empress Catherine the Second. However, this year is also special because Mikhail Piotrovsky, who has been unchallenged director of the museum for 17 years, celebrates his 65th birthday on December 9 almost simultaneously with the museum. On the day before his birthday he answered the questions of the Tribuna newspaper reporter.
'My profession is not a manager but a scientist'
- Mikhail, when in your boyhood days someone asked you what do you want to do when you grow up, what did you answer
- I grew up in Leningrad so when in my childhood days someone asked me such questions I answered that I wanted to become a seaman just as any regular boy in Leningrad. And only later when I got acquainted with history, archaeology, with my father’s expeditions I wanted to become a historian and all I had to do was to choose, which kind of historian. So I chose Arabic studies for myself.
- By the way, why did you? Arabic studies is the most complicated speciality among oriental studies.
- Yes it is the most complicated speciality. And the competition for it was the highest. Bust sometimes we should accept challenges. I started to study Arabic manuscripts at the Institute of Oriental Studies and at the same time I was studying Yemen. My main subjects were related to how medieval culture of Yemen, that was of primary importance in Arabic culture in general, was connected to ancient high civilization of that country. This was when field research started. I went to the Caucasus, Central Asia, I was travelling a lot, was studying monuments of Islamic culture. Only later I went to Cairo for training where I was studying Arabic manuscripts and Islamic monuments of Egypt. When new opportunities arose I was working, living and teaching in Yemen.
At the same time I was constantly working at the Institute of Oriental Studies, where I was studying manuscripts, publishing books. Southern Arabia in the Early Middle Ages, Koranic Tales, a series of articles about Prophet Muhammad, about power theory in medieval Islam.
And also there were several decades of expeditions. It was a joint
- The Hermitage, in general, comes first of course since I grew up here. This was the place of employment for my father and it means a lot to me. My profession is not a manager but a scientist.
- Was it easy for you to agree to hold a position of the Hermitage director? You had a good idea about that kind of job. And you also knew that to some extent it means giving up scientific work.
- Undoubtedly. It was clear at once that I wouldn’t be able to take part in expeditions. To a certain extent it was also a challenge that was impossible to turn down. In 1991 director of the museum Vitaly Suslov offered me to become his first deputy and he had a clear idea in his mind that one day I would take over the Hermitage after him. To tell you the truth I did not expect that it might happen so soon.
The Hermitage was in a difficult situation. There were a lot of ‘outsider’ persons interested in coming and directing. It could have appeared such a person who would first of all turn out half of all the Hermitage employees due to their age. He would have started to indict that everything is wrong, that it is necessary to create a totally new enterprise, focus on money and commercialization. Therefore if my father had been hesitating for a long time when he had been appointed to the Hermitage and he even had been resisting a bit, I neither resisted nor hesitated. And it was not because I am so great or because my name, education and all the rest together gave me such a set of qualities that could have helped me to preserve the Hermitage the way it was.
'The Hermitage does not have to be modern'
- Back then the whole country was in a difficult situation. What was the most difficult for the Hermitage?
- Psychological climate is the most important at the institutions of culture. Back then that climate was extremely bad. It was because the streets stormed into the museum and all those controversies that had been out in the streets - talks, disputes, squaring accounts - all that came in here. We piled up a lot of offences during the Soviet government. And among those offences there were perfectly fair ones. But the struggle for compensation of those offences, both personal and more general, started to overshadow understanding that the museum must be preserved without fail.
Plus there was the second problem - we absolutely had no money. The state told museums to go to hell by saying that there was no money and there would not be any so they should struggle themselves for they had been provided with some opportunities. The opportunities were, indeed, provided during the Soviet government and we should not forget that. For example, additional buildings had been assigned to us already back at that time. But we are not ‘new rich Russians’ that used to capture anything that was not watched. Also still during the Soviet government we acquired a right to keep the money, which the museum raised independently, for development. This was the most important thing for institutions of culture and science. People started to think what they could do. And it was not only for raising money but also for preserving their beloved museum, so the museum existed, so it remained preserved, so that it would attract people. It appeared to be a really good incentive. And attendance was gradually increasing, exhibitions were organized abroad and the museum was paid for them. It was possible to realize a close connection with museums in the whole world. And it was not only with museums, but we managed to organize The Friends of the Hermitage society, people were also helping - some helped more, others less. However, the Hermitage is a great institution and it puts everyone in their right places from time to time when it is needed.
- And who changed who the most during the past years? Was it you who changed the Hermitage or did the Hermitage change you?
- Of course I didn't change the Hermitage. I had no intention to do so. Changes, revolution - all this is bad. It is often said that museums should be 'modern'. The Hermitage does not have to be 'modern'. It is simply necessary to correspond to the challenges of time. I believe that together we have accomplished a lot. At the same time we preserved the main features of a conservative museum, of the Hermitage, the museum of the nineteenth century, the museum that preserves and presents the past to us. And by that it guides people to future.
But how did the Hermitage change me... First of all, I knew how to do a lot of things as an archaeologist but I also mastered very many absolutely new things. My work principle that forces me to work from morning till night is the following: I put the matter in somebody's hands only when I am able to do it myself to a certain extent. Because it is complicated otherwise. Moreover, the Hermitage, unfortunately, obliged me to be a public person. In my heart I am not a public person at all. I like to sit with a book at my table surrounded by manuscripts. I like to read and write. I don't even like teaching too much. And now, as you can see, I talk and talk... I have to give a lot of public speeches, represent the museum, meddle in affairs that are not directly related to the Hermitage and from which I would rather, probably, withdraw but the Hermitage does not let me.
So I became a public figure without wishing so. Although, it is, probably, good because those who wish to become public figures turn into people that are dangerous to society. And I hope that I am not dangerous because deep down inside I wanted different things.
- Which means of subsistence does the Hermitage have now?
- We manage to maintain the correlation that we consider to be optimum. It is 30 per cent of our own income and 70 per cent of state support. However the balance changes every year. Mostly it changes due to a number of charity contributions; sometimes there are more of them and sometimes there are less. What we can raise invariably is approximately 10 million dollars per year. Everything that is overhead requires certain tricks such as special excursion programmes that cost more and so on. Profit should not be regarded as of paramount importance as a criterion. Nevertheless, institutions of culture should be supported by the state but not depend on it. It should be defined clearly what the state gives and what it controls at the outcome. And at the same time institutions of culture should make their own decisions.
- Who goes to your museum nowadays? Do you keep track of that?
- Yes, we do, we have a very good sociological department and we keep
records. At present we have 2.5 million visitors per year in average.
‘It is possible to live in a museum!’
- Perception of museums is dual now. On the one hand, they conserve reality, on the other hand, they should develop a person, move him/her forward. How can one solve this contradiction?
- We should distinguish reality from a certain image that is sometimes
created intentionally. It is an image of such
In fact, museum employees created a new type of a museum that contains all ideology and culture. Museum is a storehouse for things pulled out of contexts. But by pulling out such things from context museum preserves memory of nation, culture, people. Memory of people is in museums where there are genuine articles. There is no history without museums. There is no nation and no people. Russia is there where there is a temple and a museum. If we take them away it is over. If we took away churches and museums from Siberia it would become Chinese the very next day.
- An urgent issue lately is transfer of ancient icons from museums to churches. Not long ago the Russian Museum came across this issue. From time to time it is requested that the Hermitage returns silver shrine, in which relics of Prince Alexander Nevsky were stored. Who is right - the church or museums?
- There are two positions here based on principle. The first one - museum
should make all decisions and there shouldn’t be any orders from above.
Museum shall be guided by certain serious criteria. And all kinds of bosses
shall give orders totally on the basis of some timeserving considerations.
We went through this
The second - we should not quarrel with the Church. And we are always caused to quarrel with it. Indeed, there are contradictions - an icon in a museum and an icon in a church are absolutely different things. We should get together, agree and decide which icon should be here and which icon should be there. Icon in a church is a ritual. While an icon as a work of art was distinguished only in the nineteenth century thanks to museum employees that started to clear icons and that is not, in fact, appropriate in a church. Both here and there icons have great spiritual supply. But these supplies differ a bit but our society needs both of them.
It is possible to come to an agreement about anything. Roughly speaking,
if it is
Museum pulls an article out of context. One can't do anything about it since this is the essence of its existence. And it is possible to return an article back into context in some cases but in general it should not be happening by now. The point is not in preservation but that two spirituality types have different functions. We should not forget the time when practically we did not have the Church at all and people were learning in the Hermitage about who was Apostle Paul by looking at the painting by Veronese and listening to the excursion.
- The Hermitage is situated in St Petersburg. What is your opinion
on whether the Northern capital should
- City-museum is a proud name. When I am told that it is impossible to live in a museum I always answer: "It is not only possible to live in a museum, it is even better to live there!" And in any case it is much better to live in a museum than in a shipbuilding facility! Museum gives such criteria that are important for both economy and politics. Beautiful decisions turn out to be the right ones almost always. And ugly decisions are almost always wrong. It is not 100 per cent true but still...
Of course something new should be built in the city; that goes without saying. But only something that is not out of tune with the general context should be built in St Petersburg itself. It is possible to build ‘the second Petersburg’ for all the rest. Architects should be modest. We should abate our pride when it comes to cultural heritage. This is when we would have a right for pride. Our descendants would be proud of us because we did everything well.