Rendering Unto Caesar

Article excerpt

* Two recent presidential decrees by Boris Yeltsin would seem to strengthen the position of the Russian Federation's major museum collections against restitution claims. At the same time a workable compromise has been reached with the Orthodox Church in which the monastery at Zagorsk will be almost entirely ceded to the church, with separate facilities provided for the Zagorsk museum.

As the museums of Russia attempt to find a new identity as public rather than state institutions, their position has been a particularly exposed one, open to ownership squabbles and impoverishment through the withdrawal of state funding. |The decrees do something to assuage the sense of uncertainty left by the lapse of the old Soviet laws on museum holdings,' says Tamara Igoumnova, deputy director of the State Historical Museum on Moscow's Red Square.

The Historical Museum is now placed |amongg twenty institutions of especial value to Russian culture'. The collection, along with the extraordinary nineteenth century building in which it is housed, |will be placed under the control of a commission given responsibility solely for these institutionns, bringing the museum into a higher budget bracket and allowing for (marginally) increased wages for the hard-pressed and devoted curators and staff. Now officially placed on a par with such collections as The Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum, the Historical Museum's new position brings belated recognition to a world-class collection of silver and gold artefacts, paintings antiquities, manuscipts and old books, including an impressive array of illuminated manuscripts from the monasteries and the earliest Russian law book, the Nomocanonn of 1280.

Built during the Reform Period, the museum's own history has been a chequered one. Its foundation stone was laid in 1875 and the first eleven halls were opened in 1883 by Tsar Alexander III. The museum had from the start a polemical function. It was to offer a synoptic account of the development of the Russian empire and at the same time serve as a blueprint for a new, specifically Russian, style in architecture. After the Revolution it became difficult to offer exhibitions from its collections and the halls were instead pressed into the service of twentieth-century history.

It is a continuing irony, however, that the Historical Museum's collections have been far more visible abroad -- there have been major exhibitions in Italy and Australia as well as at International Monetary Fund Headquarters in Washington -- than at home.

It was not until the late 1980s that it was possible to begin physically restoring the museum's interior to its designers original specifications. Although scheduled for completion in 1989, delays have dogged the project. But the first eleven rooms have now been completed, including the ceiling fresco of the Romanov family tree in the entrance hall. A suggested merger with the Lenin Museum across the way, which wouldd enable these rooms to open immediately has not borne fruit. That museum is currently funding itself from office rental and contemporary exhibitions. …