Today, the conference officially started with more than 350 participants gathered in the General Staff Building of the Hermitage Museum. To begin, Vladimir Tolstoy, president of ICOM Russia and head of the organizing comittee, reminded us all that only dialogue will move us forward. Mikhail Piotrovski, Director General of the Hermitage shared the brief history of this totally redone building, but also commented that it was very appropriate that the conference was here, given that the Hermitage was founded 250 years ago as an imperial museum, so politics and power have been intertwined throughout its history. Georgy Poltavchenko, the governor of St. Petersburg remarks focused on the new efforts to highlight the city’s culture as central to its future economic development, with one goal of increasing tourism–and its clear from the many tour groups from America, Asia and Europe in the city that it’s having an effect! The deputy minister of culture made brief remarks focused on both their main task, ensuring that small towns and cities be able to enjoy the treasures of places like the Hermitage, but also the goal of demonstrating that museums play a positive role in society. ICOMs president Hans Martin Hinz spoke about the founding of ICOM, in 1945/46, in ‘a world trying to repair our own devastation’ That motivation still remains ‘the living impulse for Icom’s work’. It would be a failure, he said, if we did not cooperate or become overwhelmed by new political cirumstances. There are different impassioned views on the conflict in Ukraine, he stated, but ICOM is pursuing our work rather than be pulled apart by nation states.
Following, we had the pleasure to listen to a Russian legend of the museum world: Irina Antonova, since shortly Honorary President of the Pushkin Museum of Arts in Moscow, of which she was a director for many years. Her engaging plea focused on strengthening the museums networks in general, but especially so in Russia. She lamented the gap between quality and quantity in the museum landscape of Sankt Petersburg, Moscow and some other big cities and regions (including Crimea) on the one side, and the rest of the vast country on the other. Already now the bigger museums make huge efforts to present exhibitions “in the provinces” and to connect experts. For the further improvement of this situation, ICOM would be an important professional supporter. The audience, Russian for the bigger part, agreed with a big round of applause, expressing the deep influence Irina Antonova has in the Russian museum world. Vladimir Tolstoy began his talk by reading from two documents from the 1980s and 1990s in which the Russian Union of Museums expressed deep concerns about the future of our field, but included that fact that museum workers ‘souls were still beating.’ From that difficult period he talked about the emergence of Russian museums on the global stage. He felt that museum workers did not have a history of believing in the ideology, but rather were dedicated to a higher value of truth. He talked of the recent challenges of international relationships in terms of the return of manuscripts from the United States; the issues regarding Crimean artifacts (now returned to the Ukrainian government)–the problem when ‘big politics interfere in museum affairs.’ He ended with a reminder that ‘decision makers love numbers’ but that we should ‘not dance according to fashionable music,’ as ‘culture makes a people into a nation.’ Luis Raposo, board member of ICOM Europe, recalled on a general notion the creation and content of the Lisbon declaration, addressing museums in times of crisis. Subsequently, he presented the significantly diverse structure of the museum scenes in the European countries to stress the importance of collaboration and networking, especially to include “peripheral countries”. Finally, he reminded on the values of museums, which need to be defended, and the as well the need to restore our optimism towards the future of museums. And the session part of the day circled back with an address by Mikhail Piotovski of the Hermitage. The Hermitage continues to expand both here in St. Petersburg and around the world. He’s against, as he put it, ” free-loading,” free admission for all (although he’s definitely for free admission for some); he dislikes the Duma’s efforts to “disturb our affairs” through legislation; and somewhat ruefully acknowledged that sometimes, underfunding brings freedom. He raised the question often asked, “Is it temple or Disneyland?” and ended his talk with the lessons learned from Manifesta 10. After many objections, both to having the event in Russia and of having contemporary art in the Hermitage; he says, “we demonstrated that culture can be a bridge in the classical context of an art museum.” As if to demonstrate his point, conference participants then had the opportunity to tour the Manifesta–with provocative conversations traveling across our bridges of time, space, language and experience–followed of course, by a reception, including what seemed like acres of vodka! On to tomorrow!