Art: Interview with Hermann Parzinger: “Cultural heritage is becoming a target in Ukraine”

The war threatens art and culture in Ukraine. Hermann Parzinger from the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation explains how German museums are helping now.

As President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and as a scientist, you have had close ties to Russia for decades. You are currently waiting for the German-Russian cooperation of the foundation, but emphasize the exchange and support at the level of civil society. How does this happen in practice, given current political events?

Herman Parzinger: There is an important difference here. We have been waiting for official contacts with Russia – following the instructions of the German government – but we have not cut them off. We need to keep the connection on a personal level. We continue to exchange ideas with our Russian colleagues. You have to read a lot between the lines. Drastic punishments are imposed only for the use of the word war. Intellectuals, artists and scientists are highly critical of the Russian aggression war in Ukraine. The country is divided. Right at the beginning of the invasion, Russian scientists wrote an open letter protesting against the war. Over 8000 of them sign up within a week. These are extraordinary signs on which to rely. Fortunately, research funding organizations and foundations in Germany immediately expanded their support for Ukrainian refugee scientists and artists. They also accept professionals from Russia and Belarus. These are the people we need to connect with in the future. But direct support, including material support, must now go first and foremost to Ukraine.

In a 2015 interview about the Crimean War at the time, you said that cultural relations are an anchor of hope. How can the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation currently help Ukraine, especially with the protection of Ukraine’s cultural assets?

Parzinger: The difference is as follows: After the invasion of Crimea, we agreed with our Russian colleagues to continue working together. Now, after Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, the level of escalation is different. In the face of so many innocent victims, it cannot simply be continued. We are currently in constant contact with Ukraine, by phone, e-mail and WhatsApp. People are not at all prepared for war. We get artists and scientists who want to flee Ukraine abroad. We take them and integrate them into our premises while they are here. A major concern, for example, is digital storage space: search data that should not be lost is transferred to our storage and thus secured. And then we support Ukraine in the country in securing its cultural assets, especially museums, libraries and archives. These are very simple things: packaging material and durable boxes. It is often too late for evacuations. In addition, the evacuation of cultural assets is always a risk because transport can be shot. In this regard, we must now help quickly and unbureaucratically, provide materials and collect for help.

On the other hand, are you concerned about your Russian colleagues, their research and cultural work in Russia?

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Parzinger: Of course I’m worried. Art and culture need freedom. There should be no stopping to think. With the repression currently being exercised by the Russian regime, this is not a climate in which culture and science can thrive. Russia has tremendous intellectual potential. Those in government are apparently not sufficiently aware of this potential. Science and culture thrive on freedom, internationality and exchange. If this exchange is no longer possible and a kind of iron curtain is raised again, the country will surely suffer.

Regarding future cooperation with Russian state institutions: can the important work of the project resume without further delay after the possible melting of an ice age?

Parzinger: It depends on how long this war will last and how deep the rift between Russia and the West will be, if indeed there is to be a long-term severance of contacts. When it comes to professional and personal relationships, I’m more optimistic. We have researched looted art properties along with the Pushkin Museum and the State Historical Museum in Moscow and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Over 20 years we have built a close relationship of trust. This continues to work.

In 2013 you led the Russian President and Angela Merkel to the Bronze Age exhibition at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Art looted from Germany appeared in Russia. A strong sign, because the show was the result of five years of teamwork by scientists from Berlin and Moscow. How did you experience the Russian President at that time?

Parzinger: Yes, the tour took place together with my Russian colleague Mikhail Piotrowski, the director of Hermitage. The Russian president attended the exhibition with great interest. For the first time since 1945, these important properties were exhibited in this form, painting a Bronze Age picture from the Atlantic to the Urals. Afterwards, the Federal Chancellor and the President in their speeches praised the result of this German-Russian cooperation and acknowledged that in the cultural sector, even for such difficult issues, there has been fruitful cooperation and that constructive results can be achieved. Both stressed that politics here can learn from cultural work.

One of her most recent publications, Damned and Destroyed, on the history of the destruction of culture since antiquity is in actual pain. How can the destruction of cultural assets in Ukraine be classified in this great historical context?

Parzinger: The story of the destruction of culture begins in antiquity and has not left us ever since. In the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, it has reached a new dimension and dynamics. Cultural heritage is also targeted in Ukraine. Historic buildings that survived even World War II have been completely destroyed. The Ivankiv Museum and many others were burned. Destructive is also the bomb attack on the theater in Mariupol, where people have fled. The essential question that follows is: Is the destruction of cultural assets the collateral damage of a war of criminal, ruthless aggression? Or it is also part of the strategy aimed at destroying the cultural identity of Ukrainians. The Russian president not only denied Ukraine’s sovereignty, but also its cultural independence. When a memorial site like Babyn Yar, a symbol of the Holocaust and the horrors of World War II, is shelled, one gets the feeling that annihilation seems to know no bounds.

The Pergamon Museum also belongs to the foundation.

Photo: Maurizio Gambarini, dpa

You have realized the Humboldt Forum in the reconstructed City Hall of Berlin as a new place for non-European collections. In discussing the return of colonial objects, you stand for critical reflection on the past. What solutions do you propose?

Parzinger: As a historian, I advocate a differentiated approach. Black and white photos lead us nowhere. For me it is important that the dark chapters of history are treated openly as well. Like the difficult colonial legacy of Germany, which we too have set aside. And this has consequences. The goal should be for us to develop a new relationship with the Global South. This can only mean: cooperation and joint property research, as well as joint research of origin. This is already the case for many projects. Of course, this includes the return of objects, such as the Benin bronzes, the most prominent and valuable works of art we have in Berlin from Africa. This year there will be another transfer of ownership. But the Nigerian side still wants art from Benin to continue to be displayed at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin and other German museums. The worst thing would be for any culture to be allowed to show only what comes from its country, from its region. This would be a renationalisation of museums and this could not be the future. On the contrary: museums need to tell more about other cultures. This is becoming more important than ever. Germany is an immigration country. Here, too, people have to find a part of their culture, of their past. Certainly not at the price we are exhibiting here stolen and looted cultural assets.

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation also played a key role in the formation of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin.

Photo: Jens Kalaene, dpa

Would you explain how you understand the common heritage?

Parzinger: At the Humboldt Forum we practice close cooperation with representatives of countries and societies of origin. Although this is still in its infancy, it is the current mission of the Humboldt Forum. My meaning of “Common Heritage” is cooperation at eye level, shared responsibility for cultural assets, knowledge sharing and circulation of objects. The mere return of colonial objects does not end the matter. I do not understand “split” as “split”, but as “participant”, that should be the essence. As with the theme of robbed art. There are also different legal positions. And yet Russian and German experts were able to jointly care for these works of art and cultural assets. They research works, exhibit them, exchange ideas very closely. In this way, museum work can create something connecting.

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