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Last Updated: Friday, 1 September 2006, 10:07 GMT 11:07 UK
Rude awakening for Russia's museums
By Patrick Jackson
BBC news

A state commission to inspect Russia's museums and archives is due to be up and running by 1 September after this summer's sensational revelation of a theft of some 200 items from the world-famous Hermitage Museum, allegedly with the involvement of staff.

The Pavilion Hall of the Winter Palace, the Hermitage's main building
The Hermitage Museum has inspired reverence for decades

Mikhail Piotrovsky, the St Petersburg museum's director, is a disappointed man.

"We used to have a presumption of moral innocence with regard to museum staff but since these thefts we have had to drop it and view them like everybody else," he told the BBC News website.

Russia has 58 federal museums and 1,500 under partial state control.

Curators will now theoretically have to put their own working practices on display - and the culture ministry is certainly not happy with their work.

According to its watchdog, Rosohrankult

  • between 50 and 100 museum thefts occur in Russia annually

  • in recent years, more than 300 items disappeared from Moscow's State Historical Museum and 180 from the Peter and Paul Fortress museums in St Petersburg

  • in southern Russia, a picture from a museum in Taganrog and exhibits in Astrakhan's fine arts museum were stolen

Better security systems led to a fall in common theft, Rosohrankult head Boris Boyarskov told reporters in August, but "concealed crime resulting from the treachery of... curators" was on the rise.

Vast task

A watchdog check of 198 museums in 61 Russian cities found failure "practically everywhere" to heed official guidelines for cataloguing and conserving collections.

Train-mounted intercontinental missile on display at St Petersburg's Warsaw Station railway museum
58 federal museums, 1,500 under partial state control, hundreds more privately run
St Petersburg's museums alone display anything from Picassos to rail-mounted missiles
Richness of collections due in part to expropriation by the Soviet state after 1917

Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky sees the inspection looming as "more a check than an inventory" because all Russian museums, he says, already keep their own catalogues.

He points to the detail given in the list of the 221 items stolen from the Hermitage's reserves, which is displayed on Rosohrankult website.

There may be only 30 images to accompany the clocks and icons but the measurements and composition of each item are "better than any photograph" as a means of identification, he says.

"Everything we have is already checked regularly - the thefts which occurred were uncovered precisely because of a check," he argues.

But changes are afoot. The museum's catalogues are being computerised with about 200,000 of its 3m items now filed electronically, and a new system of stock checks is being used.

"The checks will be perpetual," he says. "It will be like painting a palace - by the time you get to the end you will have to start again."

It is an awesome challenge. The British Museum in London has been working on the computerisation of its collection of 7m items for 20 years, according to its communications manager, Hannah Boulton.

It has records of all objects in its collection but, with security photographs of each object having to be digitised, not all are yet computerised.

"The extent of the collection and rapidly changing technologies mean such projects are very large-scale and time-consuming," she says.

Black market threat

Maxim Chernykh, editor of St Petersburg magazine The Russian Antique, suspects poverty is the main reason for museum thefts.

Mikhail Piotrovsky at the Hermitage just after the thefts were revealed
In Russia, curators are bearers of the national memory
Mikhail Piotrovsky
director of the Hermitage

"Things may be getting better in Russia but there are still citizens who turn to stealing because they lack the means of survival," he says.

It is certainly a fact that inflation has reduced the state salaries of most museum staff to a pittance since Soviet times.

Those few museums which can afford to, top up their staff's salaries.

In the lucrative summer season, for instance, the Hermitage says it can afford to pay a monthly average of about $500 to its staff compared to a basic state salary of about $75.

Mr Chernykh has met Russian antique dealers who have been offered stolen goods. Dealers who had inadvertently bought stolen items from the Hermitage handed them in once they heard about the thefts, he says.

The police could make it easier for dealers by issuing more stolen goods alerts, he believes.

After upheavals

After 14 years as director, Mikhail Piotrovsky is determined to restore the museum's reputation through tough action.

For one thing, the selection process is going to be tightened up for future curators who will face more questionnaires and references.

"I think museums the world over play a bigger role now than they used to," the director says.

"In Russia, curators are bearers of the national memory.

"After upheavals and perturbations, people want to go back to their history and museums provide the opportunity. It is very important to look after them."

Inside the Hermitage museum

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