Mikhail Piotrovsky, the urbane director of the State Hermitage Museum in the Winter Palace, has been connected to the museum from birth. His father, Boris Piotrovsky, was director for nearly 40 years in the Soviet era of the monumental museum that grew out of the collections of Catherine the Great and the nationalisation of tsarist riches.
Piotrovsky, who had built a career as a prominent Arabist, was tapped to take over the Hermitage in 1992, shortly after his father’s death, inheriting a museum empire in the midst of post-Soviet chaos with an operating budget of $1 million.
The view from the Hermitage overlooking the Palace Embankment is straight out of the 19th century. Inside, Piotrovsky oversees a collection of more than 3 million works of art and artefacts, a budget of 5 billion rubles (over $75 million), of which about half stems from a line item in the federal budget and the rest from revenues.
The Hermitage is so also supported by an endowment fund that was created in 2011 with billionaire Vladimir Potanin. This is still a rarity in Russia. It allows the museum to operate at a level where it now draws close to 4.5 million visitors a year – approaching peak Soviet levels of the 1970s – with a growing network of Hermitage satellites across Russia and Europe, and another planned for China. As Piotrovsky notes:
“The museum is the most democratic institution in the world, because it has something for everyone.”
At the time of our interview, Piotrovsky was about to head to Oman and Mumbai for so-called Hermitage Days in museums with long-standing ties to the Russian institution. He had just returned from 15th-anniversary celebrations for its outpost in Amsterdam and an art diplomacy conference in Dallas, Texas, examining solutions to the legal impasse that has halted US-Russian object visa exchanges for nearly a decade. In the midst of that he is overseeing preparations for the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. It is the first time an institution is serving as curator of Russia’s national pavilion.
The Hermitage is a geopolitical player as well. It is lobbying for the return of Scythian gold artefacts that are claimed by Ukraine. It also sent specialists to Palmyra in Syria under Russian military escort to gather data for a 3D model of its monuments. With that kind of scope, Piotrovsky says the Hermitage is an “encyclopaedic museum”, on a par with the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“The museum is a kind of symbol for Russia, a symbol as it were of the European face of Russia, and at the same time a symbol for the world of that Russia that we have been creating here in Petersburg for 300 years,” he says in his wood-panelled, tapestried office, at a table piled high with papers and books. “A museum is a dialogue of cultures that replaces the wars of memories,” he says. “Now, unfortunately, the world is gripped by hysteria. The story of Crimea is a war of memories on both sides,” as is the conflict over islands in the South of China Sea and the return of Nefertiti from the British Museum. “It is the use of memory and history to push people into confrontation rather than reconciliation,” he says, while a museum’s role should be to “show all sides of history in order to understand that the past is shades of grey, but it remains our history, which is interesting even if it’s full of blood,” such as the history of Ancient Rus and the Golden Horde. “It’s like this around the world now – how to overcome the postcolonial syndrome on both sides.”
That said, the Hermitage and its American counterparts have yet to overcome the stalemate over the Schneerson collection of religious books that is held by Russia’s state library, in a branch at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow, but is claimed by a Chabad Jewish group in Brooklyn, with Russia refusing to send exhibitions to the US for fear of confiscation as compensation. Yet, both sides say professional relations are better than ever.
“We have wonderful relations between museum workers,” says Piotrovsky, who explains that the crux of the issue is that Russians and Americans have culturally different understandings of what constitutes immunity from seizure. “For us, state guarantees are important, the word of honour of the government,” he says. “For Americans, good laws are important.”
Piotrovsky is always searching for cultural connections around the world. He attended Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Investment Conference, known as Davos in the Desert, last October and told Russia’s official RIA Novosti news agency that they discussed cooperation with “the museum organisations of Saudi Arabia”.
Putin has hosted talks at the museum since serving as a St Petersburg city official in the 1990s. “He first came to us with the President of Finland,” for a tour and talks back then, says Piotrovsky. “As president he has come many times with guests, not just like that, but to conduct talks. This is a very cultured means of holding negotiations.”
Piotrovsky describes Putin as “the most cultured leader since Nicholas II”, maybe even earlier, and lauds his knowledge of German, English and French. Piotrovsky keeps photos of world leaders in small stand-up photo frames scattered about his office. He finds one of himself with Putin and Tony Blair, after first showing one of the King and Queen of the Netherlands at Hermitage Amsterdam. Talks are underway for a new satellite in Barcelona.
In Russia, Hermitage satellites will soon open in Omsk as Hermitage-Siberia, Yekaterinburg, Vladivostok, and Kaluga, south of Moscow. The idea is Piotrovsky’s, but they are launched at the initiative of local governments, which provide the funds and facilities and partner with the Hermitage for art and programming. Now the federal government has seized on the concept, with regional cultural centres combining outposts of major museums and theatres, not least St Petersburg’s Mariinsky, slated for Kaliningrad, Crimea and Vladivostok, Russia’s key border regions.
“It is born of our idea,” he says. “We started doing it” – referring to the Hermitage satellites – “and then as it always the case with bureaucrats, when we do it, they take note,” and the regional centres were eventually proposed by Putin, says Piotrovsky. “It’s needed for the development of the country” since “in America, take Boston, take Los Angeles, take San Francisco, they are all major cultural centres.”
Piotrovsky is both the custodian of traditional culture and a preacher of innovation. He is supportive of digitisation but he does not want to fetishise it, saying that it is important but should augment rather than replace art. The Hermitage, he says, has tracked an interesting phenomenon, that exhibitions of old engravings are popular with young people because they remind them of photography.
In Moscow at the end of March at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts for a news conference launching a new round of exhibitions highlighting the seminal early 20th-century art collections of the wealthy Shchukin and Morozov brothers, he says he believes the revival of their vision will serve as in impetus to today’s artists.
“I think it will influence Russian art, not only serving as an example for sponsors, but for artists,” he says. “I think they need this.”
"Piotrovsky is both the custodian of traditional culture and a preacher of innovation."
He describes Catherine the Great and those who created the Hermitage as the contemporary art collectors of their time. The Hermitage hosted Manifesta, the European contemporary art biennial, in 2014, showcasing its Hermitage 20/21 programme and expansion into the revamped General Staff Building on Palace Square. He is gradually ticking off items on a wishlist of contemporary works for the site, including such recent acquisitions at Anselm Kiefer’s Aurora, from a 2017 show in the Winter Palace – Kiefer’s first exhibition in Russia – and a Bill Viola video installation.
To lure more of the general public to the General Staff building, the Hermitage staged a mock-up of the building at Galeria, one of the city’s busiest shopping malls. On a Friday evening, the General Staff was full of mothers with small children, drawn by an installation by art group Mitki made from reconfigured laboratory equipment. Piotrovsky says he also wants the museum to make a concerted effort to draw St Petersburg’s population of migrant workers, most from Central Asia, the ancient cultures of which are well represented in Hermitage collections. “We need to develop this,” he says. “The spirit of Petersburg is conveyed via museums. Coming to museums makes people Petersburgers.”
Piotrovsky responds to a question about his plans for the museum as his 75th birthday approaches, by describing the Hermitage as, in effect, a living organism with its own will. “The museum has a direction,” he says. “Like Petersburg, the Hermitage decides itself how to live,” and “who or how, it doesn’t matter.”