"We can't do without each other"

04.12.2019"We can't do without each other"

With joint restoration projects and joint exhibitions among many other activities, the partnership between the SPK and Russia is active on many levels. In this interview, we talk to Hermann Parzinger about why this close German-Russian cooperation is so important and what is happening at the moment.

The interview was conducted by Jonas Dehn.

Anastassia Boutsko, Hermann Parzinger and Michail Schwydkoj
Journalist Anastassia Boutsko, Hermann Parzinger and the Russian cultural politician Michail Schwydkoj in conversation © SPK / photothek.net / Xander Heinl

The SPK has very close links with Russia. How did this come about?

At the end of the Second World War, many objects from our collections found their way to the Soviet Union. Although some of them came back during the 1950s, others are still there. Collections have remained torn apart to this day: for example, complexes of archaeological finds, one part of which is here and the other part is in Moscow or Petersburg. In some cases, the documents are here and the originals there – or vice versa. That is the reality today. There are different positions on this in legal and political terms, but we simply want to work together at the academic level. We want to study the objects together and restore them together. We want to know what else there is and which objects are located where. We want to bring separated objects back together by virtual means in some cases, and to carry out joint research and exhibition projects. And this has all really got better and better over the past few years.

How exactly does the SPK cooperate with Russia?

We are currently preparing several joint exhibitions. One of them is the third in a series of exhibitions: over ten years ago, in 2007, there was the Merovingian exhibition, followed by the Bronze Age exhibition in 2013, and now we are doing a major exhibition with the title "Iron Age – Europe Without Borders". This was a very exciting period in Europe, because with the Celts, Germanic peoples, Iberians and Scythians, the basic ethnic composition of Europe was slowly beginning to form. In preparing this exhibition, we need access to the objects concerned: what Iron Age finds from the former Berlin collections are now in the Hermitage, the Pushkin Museum, or the State Historical Museum in Moscow? After taking stock, we will select the find complexes that can help us to convey the history of Europe during the first millennium B.C.

Then we have an important project on the sculptures of Donatello, some of which are in the Bode Museum. Items from the pre-war collection have come to light in the Pushkin Museum, and colleagues from both museums have been studying these together for almost five years. It's a matter of restoring and studying sculptures and relief carvings that still bear traces of wartime damage. We are doing all this jointly and when it has been completed there will be an exhibition.

Plaster cast of the Victoria of Calvatone
Plaster cast of the Victoria of Calvatone © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Antikensammlung

Another exhibition is the one about the Victoria of Calvantone which is running right now at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg. Victoria of Calvantone, a bronze sculpture from the Roman period, was once a highlight of the Antikensammlung (Collection of Classical Antiquities) in Berlin, alongside the Praying Boy. It disappeared after the war and was not seen again until it surfaced in the Hermitage a few years ago, in the Department of Western European Sculpture from the 18th and 19th Centuries. This dating reflects the fact that the wings of the Victoria were added to the body at a much later date. In the last few years, the sculpture has been restored by Russian and German experts working together. This joint research and restoration work is presented in the exhibition alongside the statue and its entire history.

Why is it so important that we cooperate closely with Russia?

In the twentieth century especially, our shared history is complicated, with much suffering and destruction, and this places an obligation on people today to prevent it from happening again and to show understanding for one another. This can only be done through collaboration, through joint projects – and right now, when the political situation is difficult, culture and science are virtually counter-cyclical to it: we have more projects than ever before. It is good that we have this close cooperation among partners with a high degree of trust, and good that we are continuing it. It is also important, on a very practical level, that we are cooperating with Russia, because some of the objects are there and the others are here – these parts need each other.

The SPK also takes part in the German-Russian Museum Dialogue and Library Dialogue. What do you do there?

The aim is to promote dialogue between the institutions in Germany and Russia that are affected by the war-related removal of cultural assets. These are primarily institutions in eastern Germany, which are particularly affected, and the museums and libraries in Russia where these cultural assets are located today. It is a matter of exchanging information and working cooperatively, not only in respect of cultural assets relocated as a result of war, but also of questions that go beyond that: What concerns do cultural institutions in Germany and Russia have today? Where do the problems lie, the special challenges?

The Museum Dialogue has recently issued an important publication with the title "Looting and Rescue – Russian Museums in World War II". The research project allowed Russian and German researchers working jointly to investigate the loss of cultural assets from the museums of Novgorod and Pskov as well as the four former palaces of the Tsar near Saint Petersburg. A variety of projects are being carried out as part of the Library Dialogue: for example, to reassemble, in a virtual form, libraries that once belonged to people of special interest.

You have done scientific research in Russia yourself. Are your experiences of interaction with Russian colleagues of help to you now?

Of course, personal experience is always important. You have a different approach if you have worked in another country and have got to know the language and the mentality of the people. Then you are less on a technocratic, bureaucratic level and more on a human level. This can help to overcome certain obstacles so that projects can run smoothly.

Michail Schwydkoj and Hermann Parzinger
Michail Schwydkoj and Hermann Parzinger at the sidelines of an event on German-Russian cooperation at Urania Berlin (12.2.2019) © SPK / photothek.net / Xander Heinl

How would you like to see cooperation with Russia developing in the future?

I would like this fruitful cooperation, which has been going on for many years, to continue working so well, and I would like us to undertake more and more projects, because it really is the case that museums and libraries in Russia and Germany cannot do without each other. We are connected by history. We must continue this cooperation and expand it – then maybe one day it will be possible to exhibit objects that are now in Russia for a limited period in Germany.

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