Mikhail Piotrovsky (photo Aram Arkun)

Hermitage Director Piotrovsky Comes from Russia with Love (for Armenia)


YEREVAN – Prof. Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the world-famous State Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg for almost three decades, was in Armenia in mid-October to explore projects of museum cooperation, meet with government officials, and participate in some of the Aurora Forum events. He gave a Russian-language talk on October 19 as part of the Aurora Dialogues in the Ararat Challenge festivities and is an Aurora Forum Goodwill Ambassador.

Piotrovsky and the Hermitage have profound ties with Armenia. The Hermitage is the only museum in the world which has a special department of Armenian and Urartian antiquities. Prior to Piotrovsky, it had an Armenian director, Hovsep (Joseph) Orbeli from 1934 to 1951.

Piotrovsky was born in Yerevan in 1944 to an Armenian archaeologist and Armenologist mother, Hripsime Janpolatyan, while his father Boris Piotrovsky (1908-1990) was a famous specialist on Urartu and himself a director of the Hermitage for nearly 40 years. With a doctorate in history specializing in Arabic studies, Piotrovsky participated in archaeological excavations in the Caucasus, Central Asia and Yemen. He has published widely, teachers as a professor at Saint Petersburg State University, and is a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy of Arts. He is a foreign member of the Armenian Academy of Sciences.

Urartian statuette in the Hermitage Museum

The Hermitage and Armenia

Piotrovsky wanted Armenian-American readers to be aware of these connections. He said, in fluent English, “The Hermitage is really one of the places that is very much connected with Armenia, a museum outside Armenia that has a big department of ancient and medieval Armenia. The Hermitage for more than 70 years was run by people connected with Armenia — Orbeli, my father, and me. And the Hermitage is one of these important outposts of Armenia, as Saint Petersburg in general is, and it is very important. I think that the Armenian presence all over the world and relations between Armenia itself and all the outposts of Armenian culture around the world are very important.”

Piotrovsky explained that “as a museum director, I am very much involved in all the prolongation of the cooperation between the Hermitage and Armenia.” As part of his trip, he visited the Urartian site of Karmir Blur or Teishebaini together with the mayor of Yerevan, Hayk Marutyan. Piotrovsky’s father Boris directed the original excavations there in a joint expedition of the Armenian Academy of Sciences and the Hermitage and in this way strengthened ties between Yerevan and Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad) at the same time.

Skevra Reliquary (A.D. 1293) from the Hermitage Museum

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Piotrovsky exclaimed, “Frankly, it is not in very good condition.” However, a lot of work had been done during the last year, and Piotrovsky participated in discussions of how to make it, he said, into “a very special kind of museum.” Instead of building or rebuilding something, he said that everything would be cleaned and modern technology would be used, so that “people can really get the proper feeling of what was the history and also what was the archaeology, because the digs there at Karmir Blur had been sensational — every day a find, which never happens in a normal excavation…the history of it is also a very important part of the cultural heritage.”

The Hermitage has some choice pieces of Armenian and Urartian art. According to the Hermitage website, there are 1,500 Armenian artifacts from the 9th to 17th centuries alone. Piotrovsky said that most of these are gifts of the Armenian government to the Hermitage, while other items were bought on the market like the famous Skevra reliquary from Cilicia. Furthermore, expeditions in the Tsarist period obtained various items, such as small parts of frescoes from Ani obtained by Orbeli. Most Armenia-related artifacts either are on display or on small shelves and published on the internet.

Piotrovsky said that in his October 19 talk, “Armenian Lessons of the Hermitage,” he referred to the Ani material. One of the “lessons” was that Ani items were saved, and, he said, it was an example of how archaeologists and excavators have to work in very difficult conditions, which are not stable. In addition, when World War I began, Nikolai Marr and Orbeli went anyway to Van to excavate Urartian materials. Piotrovsky said, “You have to save…art is not saved even if it is on the site and even if it is underground.”

At present, the Hermitage is working with Armenia on various projects, and specialists come to Armenia regularly, he said. Agreements have been reached about work at other archaeological sites like Erebuni. The focus on Armenia and Urartu, he said, “is not on the same level as it was before, in Soviet times, but we are now educating new young people.”

Piotrovsky noted that there is also “a very important tradition in Russian studies of the Caucasus and the medieval period, which was founded by Orbeli, who was the director of the Hermitage and a great scholar. It is about cultural unity at a time when the world was divided among different religions. When you take the upper classes, their cultural unity is very strong, and so sometimes you have the same architectural style, the same style in applied arts too, of the Christians and Muslims if they are of high social level. You can see this clearly in the Caucasus, where you have Georgia, Armenia and all the Seljuks [Turks], and all the others, and you have the very clear feeling of the same culture, more or less.”

He said that the sociological importance of this should be promoted, and that in general, “Our work of museums is to change the wars of memory into dialogues of culture. We are in a place that has a lot of wars of memory. It is very difficult to change them but it is still our mission.”

Mayor Hayk Marutyan, left, and Mikhail Piotrovsky visit Karmir Blur

Role of Museums

Piotrovsky declared, “Museums are reserves. Museums are not galleries for display. Museums are for taking objects of memory, storing them [and] studying them, because without study, to present a thing is nothing.” A treasure is only recognized as such, he said, after it is studied and properly explained. Then it can be displayed, he said.

For this reason, the Hermitage is building two large buildings only for reserves, Piotrovsky said. These will be open reserves.

He said that though museums are for the public, they are not only for the public. He said, “The interference of the public or the interference of the government in museum life is forbidden because we work for the next generation and for art, our priorities. It is…very much contested today because everybody thinks all over the world now that a museum is entertainment, a service.”

Piotrovsky has a more far-reaching view of the museum’s role. He said, “No, museums have a very important mission of keeping historical memory, and part of this mission is to educate people about this historical mission. Certainly, in the case that …it brings you [there], or makes it nice, and people love it, it is entertainment, but it is [really] edutainment.”

The Hermitage is able in part to do this because it is a Russian state institution. Piotrovsky said, “We have a special status of being under the patronage of the president and we have a special separate line in the state budget, but in general we are part of the Ministry of Culture and we are living with state subsidies.” The remaining fifty percent or so of the budget, he said, comes from ticket sales, donations and other revenue.

The Hermitage Abroad

Piotrovsky said that the Hermitage puts on many exhibitions around the world. Three days ago he was in Saudi Arabia, and before that in Venice. Armenian and Urartian ties form part of exhibitions on the medieval period. However, he said, it did not present exhibitions solely on Armenia, as that was the realm of Armenia’s museums.

The one place the Hermitage does not send exhibitions is the United States. Piotrovsky said that this was due to the decision of an American court that the Schneerson library, which was always in Russia, and was nationalized, must be given to Hasidic Jews in the United States. If it is not, state property, such as that of the Hermitage, could be seized, in a sense as hostage to force compliance. This collection at present is in the hands of the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow.

In general, Piotrovsky said, lawsuits are a danger for museums, so for each exhibition abroad, the Hermitage must obtain the guarantee of the host government or some executive body that even in the case of lawsuits, the exhibited items would be returned in a timely fashion.  As the

Under the above circumstances, Piotrovsky said, as the American government cannot provide such guarantees, the Hermitage cannot exhibit in the United States.


Piotrovsky in Armenia

While in Armenia, Piotrovsky met with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Speaker of Parliament Ararat Mirzoyan and Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II to discuss the role of museums in public life. He was presented with the symbols of the title of honorary citizen of Yerevan by the Yerevan municipality on October 19.


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