Mikhail Piotrovsky. Without renouncing or cursing

Mikhail Piotrovsky. Without renouncing or cursing

Published in the Sankt-Peterburgskiye Vedomosti newspaper No 139 (6492) on 31 July 2019 under the heading “Without renouncing or cursing”.

Posted on July 31, 2019

Cities have periods when strategic steps need to be taken to accomplish what cannot be managed in ordinary times. For our city such a period has arrived. Recently we held a meeting of the Creative Union of Museum Workers. I should stress that such an association only exists in Petersburg. We considered that this was the very time to adopt a strategy for Petersburg’s museums. We invited the Governor and signed a document obtaining an undertaking from the city to draw up that strategy and implement it along with us. It’s not a question of needing to develop the museums. Petersburg is a museum-city. There is a constant argument over whether it’s a good place to live in for that very reason. We explain that it is. Moreover, the principles by which a museum lives should be extended to the whole city. An important moment has come for our country’s culture. A war is being waged over how it will develop further. Will it become merely a supplier of entertainment, leisure and certain political ends. The battles continue unceasing around the new legislation on culture that proposes that it should have special rights. In the wider world they do exist – customs regulations, immunity from the seizure of exhibitions… But with us people keep insisting everyone is equal before the law. When we say that the rights of culture, including museums, need protection, they object that everyone is the same; museums exist for purposes of leisure and ideology and nothing more. The museum strategy for the museum-city is a continuation of the struggle for the rights of culture. Petersburg is an exceptional city. For it, culture and history are formative elements, embodied in its social psychology. That experience is bound up with a political component. Suffice it to recall the dramatic history of the Museum of the Defence of Leningrad, the Anna Akhmatova Museum, the Brodsky Museum… It’s only with us that people come out onto the streets in defence of architectural monuments. Currently very important changes in urban planning are taking place in Petersburg. The relocation of the judicial quarter and the creation of a park on its site is altering the structure of the city. The Club of Petersburgers has entered that idea in its “White Book” in which achievements in the development and preservation of Petersburg traditions are published. This also resonates with the idea of creating a new Petersburg in the Primorsky district next to the Gazprom Tower and the stadium. That will save the historical centre, the preservation of which is an important task. It’s something everyone has long dreamed about. There have been many attempts to realize it, but none succeeded. Now the opportunity has arisen. We also need to preserve Petersburg’s intellectual potential. Our city is famed that throughout its history it has been the country’s intellectual centre. This is our heritage that is gradually being eroded. Culturedness is not inherited, it is the result of upbringing. People have always sought to come to this city: they have embraced its intellectual baggage and heritage and merged into the established milieu. The city turned them into cultured individuals. In Soviet times, “Leningrader” meant a cultured person. Gradually that went away. We need to bring it back. Today it is of importance for those who live here and for those coming in. One of the means of upbringing and education is museums and their traditions. The Hermitage is not merely a place where good pictures are hung. Its history is tightly bound up with the history of Russia. An awareness of that awakens pride. It’s not a matter of us having the best suburban residences or museums, but of there being nothing of the kind anywhere else in Russia. There is a museum approach to telling about the nation’s history. When a memorial plaque dedicated to Carl Mannerheim was placed on the building of the Military Academy, a scandal broke out. The Hermitage held an exhibition about Mannerheim. It caused a stir. People came and were outraged. But that was a discussion and not hysteria. The exhibition explained everything: Mannerheim was a colonel in the General Staff, a great explorer and Russian intelligence officer. He led Nicholas II’s coronation procession. For that part of his biography he was one of our own. Better to remember that than to curse and renounce. History has many different chapters. The memorial plaque to Moisei Uritsky was always inside the General Staff building. The building was restored, and it was returned to its place, as the law requires. Alongside we placed information about Uritsky and about the man who killed him – Leonid Kannegiesser. He was a poet and an officer cadet, one of those who defended the Winter Palace to the last. The memory of Kannegiesser lives on next to Uritsky’s plaque. As soon as the information was put up, a flood of outrage came pouring in from both Russia and beyond. How can you glorify a murderer? No-one is glorifying anyone. It’s a part of our history. That was the beginning of the Red Terror that coexisted with the White Terror, it is also the origin of the 1937 oppressions… In our city the Admiralty stands opposite the building that housed the Cheka, the Hermitage and the Museum of the Guards in the General Staff building… A symbol of Russia’s Italian orientation – the Kazan Cathedral – looks across at a symbol of American orientation – the Singer Building. One needs to play with differences: the museum-city does that. There are various things by which people judge cities and countries. The museums are Petersburg’s competitive advantage. Their economic role in the life of the city is to bring in funds. Those are not just the money that people who travel here to see Petersburg’s museums leave behind. It is the funding that comes from various sources, including the federal budget and major companies. The social role of the museums lies in properly calculated concessions for visitors. The Hermitage has the correct balance. Not a “lumpen” approach – everything’s ours, access for all. We decide ourselves, who we want to see, who we want to help – children, students and pensioners. We have to know how to regulate the accessibility of culture and the flow of tourists that brings money but can also become a misfortune. To understand the role and aims of tourism; to properly assess what kind of tourists are coming and what they spend. How to ensure that they spend three days in our city and not just one. Venice is suffocating from tourists that come and go while hardly leaving anything behind, only wearing away its stones. We have an amazingly beautiful city, but its beauty is not always visible, In the Hermitage exhibits can’t be seen when a crowd is passing. In just the same way, Palace Square cannot be seen when a stage is set up there. The coaches stand four-deep on Millionnaya Street. At the Louvre and British Museum, they drop people off then leave. With us they have nowhere to go. Everywhere there is private parking. All that not only hampers traffic, but also hides the view. If the architecture is not visible, the city becomes a mere highway. All its charms are lost. The buildings in the museum-city function like the paintings in the Hermitage. We do not have that many architectural masterpieces. The masterpiece is Petersburg itself. Everything can be done here, but one needs to consider how. There is a concert on the main square that covers it with a stage and tents, as if a conquering horde had descended, and then there is a concert in the Italian Skylight Hall in which the paintings and architecture participate along with the music. In the museum we have learnt to play with this. The city and museums together should organize our public spaces – the squares, streets, parks and rivers. We know how that is done. An example is the public forum on the ground floor of the General Staff building. The museums are splashing out of their walls. Connected with public spaces are our open-storage facilities – a special way of involving people in museum life. Visitors see that the museum is a repository of heritage for coming generations. We have been given one of the best cities in the world. We shall see to it that it is preserved.

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