Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"The Wall Street Journal": The Museum as Mirror

by Melik Kaylan

06.11.2012. Like the country it embodies, indeed for the sake of that country, the Georgian National Museum is reimagining the past to carve out a durable future. The struggle for reinvention—a national obsession since the Soviet Union's demise—has if anything intensified with the Oct. 1 parliamentary elections. President Mikheil Saakashvili's staunchly pro-Western party lost control of Parliament to a free-spending oligarch sympathetic to the Kremlin, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who had made his money in Russia. Acute hostility divides the two sides, and nobody knows how much of the relentlessly modernizing president's post-Soviet orientation the new parliamentary leader will try to undo.

While most Georgians remain deeply anti-Moscow, many seem nostalgic for some vaguely imagined pre-Saakashvili era. One might call it a struggle to define the Georgian soul, and that defining is what a national museum can do most deliberately.

The 49-year-old director of the museum, David Lordkipanidze, took over in 2004 when the institution was newly reinvented and Georgia embarked on modern nationhood. A professor of anthropology who received his doctorate in Moscow in 1991, then studied in Europe and finally at Harvard in 2006 where he learned about advanced management, Mr. Lordkipanidze speaks precise English. He's a quiet, intense figure and a serious scientist in manner. This summer he finally reopened critical parts of the museum complex after years of reconstruction.

We met recently at the main building, a marble neoclassical edifice from 1910, which houses Georgia's archaeological and historical artifacts. He has had quite a task on his hands—overseeing a thorough architectural redo, updating the display rooms, digitizing archives and integrating all the provincial branches with the central museum. Not least, he has devoted funds and attention to the rural site where, back in 1991, he uncovered the 1.7-million-year-old hominid that is Europe's earliest and one of the great scientific discoveries of our time.

To all this he has had to bring a cohering doctrine eloquent of what it means to be Georgian these days: "We are building a narrative not just of Georgian history but of Georgia's history in the world. Down the ages we have been part of a global continuum which in recent years is something that the Georgian state has been especially pushing for—integration to Europe, to a wider horizon. That is part of our heritage from earliest times.

"We just had a symposium here attended by top people from the National Geographic Society, from Boston Museum [of Fine Arts], Philippe de Montebello and others. That is very important to us. We don't want to be isolated again. The mission in our historical exhibitions is to illustrate those many times when we had a role in the wider world. All the periods of humankind are represented in our country. . . . We can even be included in the era of the origins of agriculture."

The director took me around the refurbished archaeological displays, which begin by featuring gold, bronze and other artifacts dating back 4,500 years. He said they are "contemporary with the Pyramid era in Egypt—they demonstrate that our area had tribes, aristocracy, social order and a demand for art. A lifestyle above the subsistence level."

Next he showed me the museum's renowned exhibit of the Golden Fleece period, resplendent with intricate metalwork and gold jewelry. The objects have traveled to the Getty Center and the Sackler Museum in the U.S., part of "our mission to make known Georgian culture to the world; the time of Jason and Medea was not just a myth but archaeological reality." It proved, he said, that Georgia's government was from the earliest times part of the global story—a theme amplified in the collections slated for other rooms. Still being refurbished, they are dedicated to the Georgian church's role in fourth-century Christianity and to Georgian culture's influence in the Byzantine era almost a millennium later. "We don't need intermediaries," my host said. "We don't need to be interpreted or linked to the world through, say, Moscow. We had those links without them long ago."

Mr. Lordkipanidze indicated how Westernization informs the changes in the museum's presentation and structure. "In the Soviet era you had to have a guide, and it was a monologue. You were told what to think. You had no information plaques. You couldn't absorb things in your own time. Plus, they didn't think of their customers; they didn't have to worry about luring back people. Our approach is different. We want people to come voluntarily. We have opened up the spaces, made public courtyards, cafeterias, let in light. This entire stretch of Rustaveli Avenue is going to be a cultural promenade."

This process of self-definition against the influence of Moscow may become a thorny issue as the new state authorities begin to exercise sway. Above the archaeological rooms is the Museum of the Soviet Occupation, inaugurated in 2006 with support from Mr. Saakashvili, a heartrending space that chronicles Georgia's 70 years of suffering under Moscow's boot. It infuriated Vladimir Putin at its inception.

These days, the new Georgian premier talks of "not irritating the Russians." That will not be easy: The other branch of the museum newly reopened by the director is the nearby National Gallery, a czarist palazzo with an anti-Russian message cemented into its very history. First called The Temple of Glory, it was built as a monument to Russia's 19th-century conquest of the region. The space was converted into the National Picture Gallery, as it was then called, in 1920 by Dimitri Shevardnadze, a beloved historical figure who featured Georgia's top experimental artists of the day. He and many of them disappeared into the maw of Stalin's Terror in the 1930s.

On display now are Georgia's handful of world-renowned modernist artists of the past, each with a tragic tale attached. The primitivist Niko Pirosmani died of neglect in 1918. The abstractionist David Kakabadze was forced to depict Socialist industrial achievements for decades. The mannerist Lado Gudiashvili was expelled from public life for his un-Soviet painting style.

With so much thwarted aspiration to overcome, one wonders how Georgia's new political leaders will avoid irritating Moscow while remaining true to the national narrative, especially with Mr. Lordkipanidze tending the cultural memory. The outcome, one suspects, will depend on how much attention the West pays to those aspirations in the immediate future.


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