A court in Amsterdam has decided to return the collections of the Crimean museums that were supplied for an exhibition in the Netherlands to Ukraine. I won’t go into the legal niceties. An appeal is still to come.
What happened is bound up with the cultural distrust of which I have spoken many times. Distrust begins with the way the story is covered in the press and on television. The talk is constantly of gold, gold, gold. There is no gold involved. The gold for the exhibition came from Kiev and it went back there. On TV they illustrate the subject by showing Scythian gold from the Hermitage Treasury. That is incorrect and carries a strange subtext: we are allowed to possess Scythian artefacts, but in Kiev they can’t? They came into the Hermitage before the revolution.
What is Kerch losing? A good example is the Serpent-Legged Goddess – the chief symbol of Kerch and of the whole of the Crimea. There is a well-known legend that Heracles came to the Crimea and was detained there by the Serpent-Legged Goddess until they had children. The legend says that they started the line of Scythian rulers. The limestone sculpture was found in Pantikapaion, the capital of the Bosporan Kingdom. It is a museum piece and vital to the Crimea.
This is a matter of museums’ right to their collections. In Soviet times, the Museum Fund was completely under the control of the state. Now the law imposes restrictions: museum collections cannot be broken up. Museums have special rights with regard to state property.
I have repeatedly said that the bridges that culture creates are important in tense political situations. Museum people have been praised because those bridges work, because exhibitions travel around the world. The public have understood that there are more important things than legal casuistry.
Within the situation of military, political or any other complications, a system of trust exists between museums in Russia and those elsewhere in the world. This is a special category of relations. When the question comes to “trophy art”, we have a common position with our German colleagues. We find ways to act together, trusting each other. Our recipe is to put trophy art on show.
What is happening now undermines trust. The museums in the Netherlands and Crimea concluded an agreement between themselves about the exhibition. There was a promise to return the exhibits. The authorities are preventing that. The reputation of the Dutch Museum has been ruined.
In Europe trust between museums is bolstered by compulsory guarantees from the state. Exhibitions from Russia are guaranteed to be returned, irrespective of possible legal action. Even Britain has put the necessary system of guarantees in place.
Holland was a particularly trusted country. Now that has gone. I will not go into the judicial niceties. I think it would have made sense to “freeze” the situation and not to rush into a decision.
In the press, here and in the West, this story is presented as a scandal. But things are far more complicated than that. The rights of culture are being infringed, museums’ rights to their collections. In this instance these are not donated or purchased collections, but artefacts excavated from the soil on which the museums stand. These objects are the foundation of the self-identification of the people who live in the Crimea. Museums exist first and foremost for the local population, and only then for tourists.
We are preparing a statement from the Union of Museums of Russia about the loss of relations of trust between museums, something which had previously not been influenced by politics. We used to work together without being hindered. A blow is being struck against trust. We will no longer have the trust of the authorities who have the final decision on inter-museum exhibitions.
The results of our work are obvious. The American Senate has just passed the bill amending the law on immunity. It permits exhibitions from Russian museum collections to obtain state guarantees of immunity. For many years now, we have not exchanged exhibitions with the USA. The North American Association of Art Museum directors worked with lawyers, persuaded congressmen, and negotiated with cultural figures so as to take account of all the nuances. We have received the text and will be studying it.
Politicians show little concern for our problems. Palmyra, for example. We said that its liberation was proof of the priority of culture. The rights of culture were assigned primary importance in military decisions. That is not so now.
Recently the interests of culture have been coming under attack. People who have not seen an exhibition, a performance or a film start kicking up a fuss, writing identical denunciations to the public prosecutor’s office and complaints to the Ministry of Culture.
If a museum puts on an exhibition, there should be trust in it. If the European University turns out good specialists, they should be trust in it. A campaign is quite rightly being waged in the country against diploma mills. However, it has also affected the European University, one of the best educational institutions in the country. The word “European” arouses distrust, though, as does the word “intellectual”.
Not for the first time, I am saying that we live in an atmosphere of distrust. We don’t trust anybody ourselves; we get checked; we don’t believe in the checkers’ pure intentions; they don’t believe in our honesty. It’s clear that in today’s world nobody trusts anybody.
Our task is to preserve the sphere of trust that exists among intellectual people. Distrust is a sign of a lack of knowledge and a lack of desire to comprehend the complexity of the world. Trust has to be restored.
In 2002, when Bush and Putin came to the Hermitage, we were exhibiting Titian’s Venus before the Mirror from the Washington Gallery. From America they sent us a painting that had belonged to Russia and was sold in the 1930s. A mark of trust like that between countries is more important than negotiations about rockets.
In Paris an exhibition of works from Russian museums opened recently that is devoted to Sergei Shchukin. The press writes that for the first time paintings from a single collection are being shown in Paris, an unusual exhibition… Nothing of the kind – the paintings have been brought together several times, they’ve been to Paris, they could have been shown in a different way… The exhibition tells about the collector, about his tastes and about how a Russian shaped artistic life in Russia and France. It has taken place at a very tense moment, as tense as could be. The Russian and French presidents cancelled a planned meeting. They were supposed to get together at the exhibition. We showed our generosity, didn’t kick up a fuss and didn’t cancel the exhibition. The opening was attended by people who shape public and political opinion in France. They spoke about the soft power of trust: “The Russians trusted us with the exhibition, despite the situation that has arisen. Only they could make such a gesture.”
Trust is a gentle force. It makes people better natured and allows them to stand up for their own position.