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  • Writer's pictureDimitri Ozerkov

Launch of Vincent Lépinay’s book Art of Memories: Curating at the Hermitage

On 27 February 2020, the Council Hall of the State Hermitage was the venue for the presentation of Vincent Lépinay’s book Art of Memories: Curating at the Hermitage.

Vincent Antonin Lépinay is a doctor of anthropology and sociology, Associate Professor in the Sociology Department of the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris, who has also worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the European University at Saint Petersburg. His research interests are at the intersection of institutional theory, social theory and new digital approaches in the humanities.

In 2012, the French scholar, as a representative of the European University at Saint Petersburg, was permitted to conduct an unprecedented study of the Hermitage: for the first time in world practice, the methods of anthropology and mathematics were applied to a institution in the sphere of the arts – a museum. The conditions of the experiment reproduced a standard sort of situation for an anthropologist setting off to study barely discovered tribes or community using the method of engaged observation. Lépinay does not know Russian and is not a specialist in either the history of the arts or the history of Russia. The scholar was assisted by students of the European University and his work is based on interviews that they had with members of the museum staff, Thanks to the unique level of access provided to the Hermitage’s subdivisions and staff, Art of Memories opens the doors of one of the world’s greatest museums to readers and allows them to witness for themselves how the history of art is made.

In Art of Memories, Professor Lépinay describes the practices of museum curatorship in the in the Hermitage, presenting the museum in an innovative way as a “laboratory of culture”. He analyses the contradictions between the museum’s role as a place where works of art are studied and as a community that, in a certain sense, cuts itself off from the outside world. According to his hypothesis, during the museum’s isolation in the Soviet era whole generations of art historians developed a system of knowledge founded upon exceptional closeness to the museum collections. Even after the Hermitage became much more broadly represented on the worldwide museum stage, the practices of “secrecy” and the oral transmission of knowledge have persisted. Lépinay analyses the evolution of the ethos of the Hermitage curators and scholars against the background of the transition from Soviet to post-Soviet museum practices in the realms of the mobility of works of art, the documentation of collections and the evolution of scholarly competencies.

Participating in the lively and critical discussion chaired by Mikhail Piotrovsky, General Director of the State Hermitage, were the film director Alexander Sokurov, Director of the Garage museum Anton Belov, experts from the European University Oleg Khakhordin and Natalia Mazur, the prominent journalist and author of books on the Hermitage Geraldine Norman, and members of the Hermitage staff – Yury Piatnitsky, Arkady Ippolitov, Alexei Larionov and Dmitry Ozerkov.

Concluding the discussion, Mikhail Piotrovsky said: “The book is a continuation of our work with the European University. In it the museum is rather turned upside down, but in point of fact it is not us who were studied, it is we who summoned a very fashionable, very distinguished person to write a little volume in his own style about museums, looking at the Hermitage. The book is constructed upon two stereotypes: one stereotype might be termed anti-Soviet, about a backward Russia, while the second is the stereotype of the digital culture, imagining that mathematics is zeroes and ones, while mathematics is actually far more complex… These are stereotypes, but so they should be. These are the stereotypes of present-day scholarship, represented by the European University, but the Hermitage is more complex than stereotypes.”

A video recording of the discussion can be viewed here:

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