Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Bridging Culture and Power

 Hermitage Museum. Source: Wikimedia

Ben Hoyle, ‘Hermitage Museum’s bridge between culture and power’, The Australian, 11 December 2014

Fifteen years ago on New Year’s Eve night 1999, Russians gathered around their television sets to see their beleaguered president Boris Yeltsin address his chaotic, crisis-torn nation. He had a surprise in store for them. Defeated by a devalued rouble, a collapsed oil price, a raging insurgency in Chechnya and his own health problems, an emotional Yeltsin begged their forgiveness and announced his retirement.

“I have signed a decree entrusting the duties of the president of Russia to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,” he told them.

Russians knew very little then about the obscure former KGB agent who was now their leader. Soon afterwards a reporter asked Putin if he perhaps felt intimi­dated by the Kremlin’s lavish interiors. Of course not, he replied. “I have seen the Hermitage.” There was no need to say any more.

For many in Russia, the State Hermitage Museum complex on the banks of the River Neva commands an almost mystical significance, a potent mixture of imperial splendour, revolutionary symbolism and world-beating art and objects. Since taking power Putin has “many times” used its galleries to grab informal conversations with heads of state while showing them around, according to Mikhail Piotrovsky, the Hermitage’s astute director.

The Russian President was at the museum again on Tuesday. In one of its marble-columned halls he chaired a meeting with his presidential council on science and education, screened live on state television. He then visited an exhibition on the imperial origins of the museum under Catherine the Great 250 years ago.

Twenty years ago Putin was deputy head of St Petersburg’s city administration with a special responsibility for foreign relations when the Queen became the first reigning British sovereign to visit Russia. A tour of the Hermitage, where her relatives had lived, marked the climax to the historic visit. British ambassador Brian Fall said at the time that the visit marked a new era in relations between the countries: “The clouds have lifted.”

Now they are descending again and the Hermitage is once more playing a part.

Last week in St Petersburg I heard Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, describe the Hermitage as “not just the most magnificent museum building in the world (but) also an inspiration to museums everywhere, a place where the great things of the world are shared with the world”.

He was speaking before unveiling one of those “great things”. The British Museum, founded in 1753, has lent a 2500-year-old headless statue of a Greek river god to its “little sister” for its 250th anniversary. Like Piotrovsky, MacGregor believes that deploying culture to strengthen links between nations is central to his mission, especially in times of diplomatic stress.

The loan, the first time any of the disputed artefacts from the Parthenon known as the Elgin Marbles have left Britain in more than 200 years, was revealed in The Times that morning.

As MacGregor knew it would, it has ig­nited a furious debate about ownership of the marbles and the wisdom of the two museums collaborating at a time of such acute political tension between Moscow and the West. But the loan also has trained attention on the Hermitage — currently showing a major Francis Bacon show — and its relationship to power.

Last year German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Putin visited a Hermitage exhibition, jointly cur­ated with German colleagues and involving Russia’s nearest equivalent to the Elgin Marbles, the “trophy art” taken from Germany by the Red Army after World War II.

Both leaders made speeches stating their country’s claims, Piotrovsky said. Merkel added that the “museums are teaching us what to do”. She said it “because we said it to her, me and the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. In museums you can say a lot of things. The politicians just agree with you and then they repeat it sometimes.”

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