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Aleksey Levykin: We represent the history of Russian civilization

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Aleksey Levykin: We represent the history of Russian civilization

28.02.2021

Vladimir Emelianenko

The building of the State Historical Museum on Red Square. Photo credit: Marcin Konsek / ru.wikipedia.org

On the occasion of its 150th anniversary, the State Historical Museum begins a large-scale renovation. The scope includes the main building of the museum on Red Square, the Monument to Minin and Pozharsky, the Novodevichy Convent, and other objects. However, the museum will be open for visitors. Aleksey Levykin, the museum director, told the Russkiy Mir about the restoration, new exhibitions, and interactive projects of the State Historical Museum.

Was the museum seriously affected due to being closed during the pandemic?

Financial losses incurred due to pandemic restrictions have amounted to about a third of the usual annual income, which restrains anniversary restoration opportunities. Before the pandemic, we had 1.5-1.6 million visitors a year. In 2021, the museum attendance has fallen by more than a third, to less than half a million

The museum has just opened, and there are no tickets available. “The Court Garment” opens on March 17, and all the tickets are sold out. Why?

When it comes to visits, we will observe an unusual situation for a long time. On the one hand, due to the pandemic restrictions, we have come up with several interactive projects where museum exhibits can be touched with hands and even assembled like a children's building set. It is both the effort to attract visitors and a desire to help blind and other people with special needs to connect to culture. However, the humanitarian component also has a financial side: sometimes the influx of visitors causes direct physical damage to a monument. For example, we have to restrain the flows of people wishing to visit the Cathedral of the Intercession, more commonly known as the St. Basil's Cathedral: the masterpiece experiences the strong impact that harms its preservation. So the growth of the tourist flow is important, but it is not the main indicator of our work. Nevertheless, the museum doors will always be open despite the ongoing comprehensive restoration.

Aleksey Levykin. Photo credit: website of Historian Magazine (www..)

How? And what about the restoration?

The restoration will be conducted and the museum will operate in compliance with all standards of Rospotrebnadzor (Russian Agency for Health and Consumer Rights). Thus, the large-scale program of the museum complex expansion will not be affected. We cannot limit our activities to restoration only, since it is not only about the history of the Russian state; we represent the history of Russian civilization. Adding modern technologies and the re-exhibition of the museum are performed on a regular basis, just as in the case of the Cathedral of the Intercession - the symbol of the country. Restoration works there continue annually. Thus, visitors are almost not affected, and the scope is stretched out for years: no sponsor is able to support the entire scope of works in a lump sum. We will move in stages. In total, we engage over 80 restorers and 100 engineers. They will have to restore about a million monuments and cultural objects and create technologically advanced conditions to store reserved collections.

Still, why are there no tickets for The Court Garment?

There will be. We sell tickets carefully, step by step, to comply with requirements to working conditions monitored by Rospotrebnadzor. Other offline exhibitions are being resumed in parallel. Yes, we are waiting for March 17. I know that The Court Garment exposition dedicated to the life, lifestyle, and ceremonies of St. Petersburg and Moscow in the 18th - 19th centuries is very much expected. It will be followed by equally interesting exhibitions, such as Domestic Weapons of the 18th - 19th Centuries; the exhibition of Albrecht Dürer (1471 - 1528), a German Renaissance artist; Vikings. The Path to the East; The Iron Age. Europe without Borders (joint exhibition with the EU countries - V.E.); Russian Empire; Nadezhda and Neva, an exhibition dedicated to the first circumnavigation of Ivan Kruzenshtern; the exhibition of Dmitry Levitsky. And from September we will start a series of exhibitions of the leading BRICS museums museums from Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa

Dress, XIX century Showpiece from The Court Garment exhibition. Photo credit: shm.ru

Why will the exhibitions of Dürer and Levitsky be in your museum, and not in the Tretyakov Gallery or in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts?

Because these artists are of historical scale. Kruzenshtern is a phenomenon of historical scale. Furthermore, Nadezhda and Neva, his vessels that traveled around the whole world, enable us to experiment with interactivity and multimedia technologies. In such a way we can attract schoolchildren and make them look at the "adult" museum from a different angle. There will be a lot of surprises for the youth audience. For the same reasons, such as historical significance and the possibility to touch some pieces or even weave, we will have the exhibition of the Silk Museum and the exhibition of folk costumes from the PRC. And we will continue negotiations about Treasures of Ancient China, the exhibition that has already been disrupted more than once due to the pandemic, with a group of Chinese museums.

Treasures of Ancient China may be presented earlier by the Tretyakov Gallery, which also announced negotiations with the organizers.

We do not compete with the Tretyakov Gallery or the Pushkin Museum. Although, do you know what I have noticed? Basically, the same visitors come to our museum and go to the Tretyakov Gallery and the Pushkin Museum. This is the way things are in culture and the predetermined outcome: competent visitors are scarce. But I must disappoint you - the competition between museums is something like a wish to them. In reality, museums do not compete; they exist to implement the nation's cultural bank. And in this sense, we have to cooperate even if we don't want to, despite the regional nationalism or the feeling of possession within the country. The State Historical Museum, on the contrary, sends its expositions to the regions, for example, to our branch in Tula.

Or, for instance, The Iron Age. Europe without Borders exhibition is on the way to us despite a series of sanctions imposed by the EU. It includes pieces from several countries and several museums in Germany and Italy, such as the museums of Brescia, Genoa. Museums cannot operate without science-based contacts, expositions - it's like stop breathing.

Or here is another example. Recently they asked me in the Netherlands: "Having taken into account the growth of feminism in society, what will you change in the museum space?" And then the question was clarified in such a way that I did not understand what some of their foreign gender affairs and issues were about. I am a conservative person, and I don’t even know such words. I answered: "These problems are irrelevant to us." And for a joke, I told them that I personally had faced the problem of feminism back in my student years, when for some reason our girls always harvested more potatoes and carrots than boys. And I was hurt back then. They did not understand my point! I answered them: These problems are irrelevant for you. But potatoes and carrots are in our culture. So please allow us to coexist in it as boys and girls."

Nevertheless, cultural disputes over art restitution continue. You have participated in more than one series of negotiations…

But no one returns anything. This is a long-standing issue, yes, it comes up from time to time. For example, does Greece ask Britain to return its cultural values rightfully? I think so. Or does Italy request the Louvre to return the loot by Napoleon for a good reason? Yes, I believe so. However, it remains the case that nothing changes. From my point of view, world museums have formed their collections, and these collections are indivisible. As a compromise, cultural exchanges can be negotiated. And then, it is easy to visit any museum in the global world. And redistributions may also be unfair.

The Monument to Minin and Pozharsky. Photo credit: Valeriy Ded/ ru.wikipedia.org

Will we see the renovated Monument to Minin and Pozharsky soon?

Not that soon as we would like to. As with the Cathedral of the Intercession, no sponsor can fund the restoration with a lump sum. About 16 million rubles were collected for the restoration of the monument. By the way, 200 years ago the monument was erected with contributions by people; so collecting donations for its restoration has offered everybody the opportunity to participate in the monument preservation. Nevertheless, the total cost so far is about 46,000,000, so it will take time. One thing is gratifying - the monument will not be removed from Red Square.

How soon will you open up, as the saying goes, on a grand scale?

Even after the restoration is completed, it will still take a long time for the world to return to normal and for us to return to the attendance of 1.5 million visitors a year. But here's the paradox: over 12.5 million people visited us through social networks and attended our online lectures during self-isolation. However, I have no fear that online events will replace live tours. Here I agree with Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage Museum: people come and will continue to come to the live museums. Online encourages people to see reality. In this sense, beauty saves the world. It can stop aggression and even wars.

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