View from the Hermitage. Attacks at the Museum
It was not once that I spoke of the relations between museums and the church. I think it is time to return to this topic, since this question is very acute.
I was surprised by the words of the Head of the Public Chamber commission which were said from TV screen and in which cultural heritage was opposed to spirituality. Such idea is the result of inadequate education of our society. It happened so that the two generations engaged in political struggle and going into politics; as a result, they turned out to be somewhat deprived in the field of culture. In the first place, they do not know what museums are. In the second place, they do not understand what spirituality and cultural heritage are. They do not understand that cultural heritage is the very spirituality of the nation.
Religion and culture are not opposed to each other. They supplement each other, though they speak different languages. Moreover, in times of trouble they can substitute for each other. At the time when the church did not virtually exist in our country, the knowledge about religion was passed on through museums. By the way, Patriarch Kirill spoke about this as well.
Generally speaking, the church and museums have nothing to quarrel over. An acute public conflict is being created from nothing. There is ritual art in which the sacral dominates. Its place is in church. There is ritual art in which its public accessibility is more important. When items of such art are placed into a museum, it becomes public. My standpoint is that museums and the church should negotiate directly with each other without mediators. Mediators are often willing to pray for forgiveness of their own sins at someone else expense, or to use spiritual energy of religion and culture for quite earthly purposes.
We always hear such words as possession and property. It is much rarer that we hear the word shrines. Formally, we are speaking about property; lately, the focus has been shifted towards facilitating the transfer of this property to the church. So far, museum items have been given over to the church by the decision of the Ministry. Now there is a law underway that is supposed to simplify the procedure. I do not understand the reason why. Any property transfer should be complicated enough, so that a mistake does not occur. For this purpose there are many impediments in the laws. Likewise, there exist many rules in religion, so that a person would not make a big mistake.
I remind you for the tenth time that the museum fund is almost the only part of the national patrimony which has not been exposed to privatization and plunder. There have been many attempts to do that, and such attempts still occur. The situation is aggravated by the fact that people who are used to hear about museum treasures imagine them to be specific valuable items such as gold and diamonds... These people do not know that the value of an item is created in the museum and scientific context.
Continuous attacks at the museum fund and campaigns aimed at slandering museums and museum curators are accompanied by appeals to put things in order. I will remind you that in 1920s such order consisted in inventorying valuable objects belonging to the church, and then the inventory was followed by confiscation.
It may sound blasphemous, but the church’s attack at museums is not the first one. It followed the demand to return the items brought from Germany after the war. We have devised a recipe for forming relations with Germany: we have determined those items that are to be returned immediately and the items that are to be left with us, and then we have found the way how to work in cooperation with them.
We have lived through attacks by descendants of the collection owners.
Here we have also found the way out: firstly, it is protection by law and,
secondly, establishing funds that keep the names of the previous
owners and involving people connected with these names into the work of these
funds. There have also been attacks with demands to hand over items
for representative purposes. We have again managed to hold them back and to work
out a recipe. There are many Russian items that are at sale. One can mention
Returning museum valuables to the church is not a question of justice. It is an absolutely new situation. Nowadays, the church plays an important spiritual role in Russia. In order to fulfill this role it needs facilities, buildings, temples and ritual objects... This is where the problem lies, and this is the problem to be solved.
If we continue to insist on the wording justice restoration, then a stream of demands from heirs of collectors and landowners will follow, accompanied by demands from representative foreign trade organizations. Oil price will sooner or later fall, and trading will still remain a necessity, which means that, like in 1930s, it is antiques that will go for sale. After that, the rich who want to decorate their houses, their gardens or their churches will start to demand something.
The story with the Toropets icon of the Virgin Mary also has nothing to do with religion. This is yet another proof of the fact that in our society money answers all things. If a person has money, then he can bring an icon to a newly built church. This is the matter we are speaking of; it has nothing to do with the fact that it is a sacral icon, and religious people should pray before it. If by whim of some rich religious person an ancient and fragile icon can be taken from a powerful museum, this means that anything is possible. It concerns not only icons and museums.
Basically, the church is used for the purposes of attacking the public cultural heritage and for taking it out of the public use. It causes deep regret and can inflict destruction on the church itself, as it may revive the saddest stereotypes connected with the church image in Russian history and culture. To some extent, they once became the reason for the Russian revolution from which the church suffered. When in Russia people start talking about Orthodox society, every educated Russian, I regret to say, recalls not the church but something different...
The museum fund is sacred. Nothing should be taken from it, except for the most
extreme cases in accordance with the federal law. A museum is an organism
in which all parts are closely connected. It is as sacred
as the church. In the course of the history museums have repeatedly been
exposed to devastation: after the revolution there were foreign sales,
remelting of valuable items including museum treasures, withdrawal of items
for representative purposes, gifts, return of trophies.
As far as the church is concerned, attempts at taking away items particularly from museums attract special attention. Being kept in museums, these items have nowhere else to go. There are large private collections of items plundered from churches, and they are being taken abroad. Once this process is stopped, there will be enough icons for every church. There are plenty of splendid icons sold in antique shops and at auctions. It would seem that the state could have spent some energy, resources and influence in order to make amends to the church for its faults. It would be good to recall the necessity of supporting the contemporary Russian icon painting.
The highest form of injustice is to atone for the state’s sins at the expense of museums and culture. There is only one form of justice, and that is to preserve the cultural heritage. To impoverish museums and public heritage is a step backwards. Existing inside the church, an item limits its accessibility. It happened so that, in consequence of our tragic history, Russian icons became an event of world culture. During the synodal period, the dark boards of icons lived, though covered with settings. In church, an icon is a mediator between men and another world; there its artistic characteristics are not important. At the end of the 19th century, they were cleaned by restorers and appeared naked and unadorned in museums, thus entering the world art. The presence of artistic language, which is so important for communication with the world, had its impact as well. That was the time when church museums appeared. This was also withdrawal of items from churches. Inside museums, an icon has an opportunity of communicating with religious people as well as with all others. Inside a church, an icon does not communicate with temporal people.
An icon does not have to be in church. Icons are kept in houses, too. A stolen icon with its origins in the Alexander Palace has been returned to us. We will hand it over to the palace for temporal storing. The first museum collections of icons were created already by Nicholas II. Icons were brought from Mount Athos; there were copies made for Athos. Items brought from monasteries were handed over to museums for the purposes of preservation. Icon collections of the Russian Museum appeared before atheistic times. Having been placed into the museum, they became a part of the museum organism.
Another question can be raised: should not some objects and icons be handed over from church to museums? To hand over things which have only the public value, not the sacral value. The classic example is the decoration of Alexander Nevsky tomb. For many years it has been standing in the Winter Palace, one of the monuments of Russian statehood. There are no relics in it. It is a large silver construction made in the form of war trophies with the depiction of battles, and it is also a monument of Russian statehood. For almost a hundred years it has been fulfilling its function in the museum. This function is more important than those of a tomb decoration. The Hermitage saved it twice from remelting as the monument of culture and history.
There exists a situation which should be spoken of frankly and openly. The church activity should be provided for at the expense of the state, and not at the expense of museums. Our recipe consists in creating a conciliation commission including both churchmen and museum workers. Otherwise there will appear a conflict that may turn out to be very acute.
I would like to repeat that museums are the depository of cultural memory of the nation. They should not be treated like storehouses from which the state machine can get whatever they want and whenever they want: if they please they give items to Hummer or put them up for Western auctions, if they want they take things out to palaces and embassies or give them back to churches...