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Russia: Reforming Cash-Strapped Museums

  • Lindsay Percival-Straunik

Prague, 23 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - When the news broke that Russia's world famous Hermitage museum was slowly sinking, curators and art lovers from around the globe were aghast.

The museum's director Mikhail Piotrovsky downplayed the alarmist newspaper headlines at the time. He conceded, however, that something had to be done to shore up the sinking foundations, and fast.

With shrinking budgets and workers unpaid for months on end museum officials were only just beginning to grapple with the concepts of corporate sponsorship, patronage and international aid.

When Piotrovsky worked out a rescue plan, involving Finnish, Dutch and U.S. expertise and money, die-hards accused him of selling out to the West.

Critics aside, the Hermitage was able to find a new way forward. From Vorkuta to Vladivostok other museums are now facing a similar challenge.

"The days of government handouts are over. Museums in Russia now have to learn how to fund themselves," says American researcher Robert Atchison.

He has dedicated a lifetime to restoring the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo and reopening it as a museum to the Romanov family.

Eventually, Atchison hopes it will serve as a prototype for museum management in Russia in the 21st century.

But Russia is not alone in its problems. British museums have been long overstretched.

Nicholas Goodison, chairman of the National Art Collections fund, said this week that funding cuts have reduced British museums to "shambolic relics riven with in-fighting."

Goodison warned of crumbling standards and buildings. He denounced a situation where some local museums are forced to close parts of their collections to save money. But he warned that in their efforts to boost revenues museums are becoming too populist.

Referring to London's famous waxwork museum he said it is "not a role of a museum to ape Madame Tussauds or Disneyland."

He called on the government to conduct an independent review of costs and to guarantee a stable level of core funding.

While it remains to be seen whether Britain's new Labor government will heed the call, it is unlikely that a new financial dawn will break in Russia any time soon.

But, at least, these shared experiences have helped draw Russian and British museum staff together to search for possible solutions.

The Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum is one such organization promoting professional exchanges.

Last year it held a seminar in St. Petersburg funded by the U.K. Know How Fund and the Soros Foundation.

The aim was to help museum directors in the city find new strategies for survival in market conditions.

Summing up the results of the seminar in "The Urban Age," published by the World Bank, Yevgeny Artemov, deputy director of research at the State Museum for Russian Political History in St. Petersburg, drew a positive conclusion.

He writes that, following discussions with British colleagues, his museum had opened a gift shop, a cafe as well as introduced new visitor services.

St. Petersburg's Artillery Museum also sprang into action. Under a successful barter arrangement the organization that runs the museum's gift shop in return provides coal to heat the building. The organization that runs the cafe also cleans the washrooms. In addition, the 200 or so staff are entitled to a 50 percent discount on food and drinks.

But other directors were less impressed with the outcome of the workshops believing instead that the real enemy is the museum visitor.

From that viewpoint, museums should remain the preserve of academics who cherish their contents and not be open to the common man.

Others still overcame their initial reluctance to new ideas. As one director from the Museum of Military Medicine pointed out: "Marketing and advertising are obscene words to many of the older staff members."

Now, however, information about that museum's archive is on the Internet and marketing brochures can be found in tourist agencies, hotels and schools.

Commerce and culture still sit uneasily side by side in the West.

At the dawn of the new millennium the relationship there, as in the East, looks set to remain a troubled one.