Go back to article: The Cosmonauts challenge

4. Partnerships: politics, pragmatism and passion

This exhibition project came with a degree of political exposure. Moreover, from an early stage it was clear that without the highest level of diplomatic support and the right delivery partners, the combination of a febrile landscape and genuinely tough pragmatic problems would conspire to sink our ambition.

4.1 The official support: the British team

After initial encouragement from Ms Rose, the British Council’s Director of Arts, we were introduced to Director of the British Council Moscow office Paul de Quincey and his team, who proved to be important in ensuring a smooth introduction to lenders from the cultural sector. However, to access the collections of the various scientific enterprises the team needed an introduction from a different official body. We were able to call upon assistance from the British Embassy’s Science and Innovation Network (SIN). Dr Julia Knights and Dr Marina Sokolova were the driving force behind the UK-Russia Year of Space 2011–2012, which had coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of Gagarin’s pioneering mission. SIN was instrumental in establishing lines of communication with Roscosmos’ enterprises and NPP Zvezda.

This network had a strong working relationship with the enterprises and ensured that the Science Museum had a receptive welcome in the first instance. It cannot be sufficiently stressed that colleagues in Roscosmos and the enterprises had never dealt with museum loan demands previously, had no staff with loan administration and condition reporting experience or any funds to cover associated costs. That the loans still proceeded is a testament to the crucial role of SIN and the goodwill of our Russian colleagues. The British Council also played a crucial role in promoting the idea of the UK-Russia Year of Culture and then managed its delivery in somewhat choppy waters.

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) also played an important role, especially in providing the Russian authorities with assurances as to the security of the objects as anxieties about the risk of seizure arose from 2014 onwards (see 4.4). The project team ended up almost expert itself in the abstruse usages of diplomatic exchanges, such as the note verbale.

Throughout negotiations, the Director maintained dialogue with the British Ambassador, the Russia Desk of the FCO and the international officers of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Whilst the Science Museum is designated as a Non-Departmental Public Body, and thus enjoys its own independent Board of Trustees under the National Heritage Act and a considerable degree of financial and decision-making freedom as compared with a standard government department, it nonetheless had to proceed with every caution regarding the geopolitical ‘mood music’.

The Science Museum Trustees remained consistently supportive of this project and the FCO was also consistently sure of its merits too, but one of the great ‘What if?’ questions would be how the Museum might have proceeded if the FCO and/or DCMS had taken a negative view, both ethically and pragmatically.

4.2 Finding the pragmatic lynchpin

By mid-2013 it became clear the Museum would need an official partner in Russia to administer, coordinate and facilitate its relationship with lending institutions, both cultural and non-cultural. The key factor, ultimately leading to the successful signing of the loan agreements with our most reluctant lenders, was our choice of partnering institution.

Finding an ideal partner in Russia to work with seemed daunting. Different systems of administration, collection care and record-keeping plus an inevitable language barrier might discourage a European museum from staging a Russia-themed display. A further complication is that the country’s museum sector consists of collections managed on local and federal levels. At the early stages of content development for Cosmonauts curators established a close working relationship with the MMC, a museum under the jurisdiction of Moscow authorities. As our intellectual partner the MMC curators provided expertise, as well as opening their stores and providing introductions on how to initiate or revive relationships with some of the key figures of the space programme, the cosmonauts Aleksander Lazutki, Vladimir Dzhanibekov and Anatoly Artsebarsky. Although we enjoyed our working relationship with MMC, the museum was not a federal level institution and therefore unable to access specific state authorities and procedures, which was essential for our main partner.

Cosmonauts has 24 partners with 18 lenders whose objects needed to be consolidated for customs clearance and shipping. We needed one institution, a key partner who would agree to take responsibility for consolidating the works from the museums, archives, private collections and enterprises and applying for permissions to take the objects out of the country. The specific status of MMC would not allow loaning objects from other museums on our behalf as only the institutions with Federal status have such authority. The Polytechnic Museum might have been a good alternative but since 2013 has been undergoing major restructuring and site restoration works that affected its capacity and staff availability.

Finally, in mid-2013 the MoC ruled that Cosmonauts be offered a partnership with the State Museum and Exhibition Centre Rosizo. This proved to be a brilliant choice – because of its status, experience and the quality of its management team. The Rosizo team have ‘heard it all before’. What we mean is that in many of the space industry negotiations we were presented with a bewildering array of administrative and legal protocols. Rosizo was invaluable in separating the wheat from the chaff and in some cases sweeping aside some of the more convoluted bureaucratic hurdles.

Created in 1959, Rosizo has decades of experience in exhibition practice and handing complex consolidated loans within Russia and the former Soviet Union for international projects. Cosmonauts was to benefit greatly from such a partnership. For Rosizo the timing was also perfect, as in 2013 it had revived under the leadership of its new director Zelfira Tregulova. Rosizo played a key role in the successful outcome of the project. As our key partner and in her official capacity of state cultural institution director, Dr Tregulova was able to represent the project at key government and ministerial meetings as well as in negotiations with Roscosmos.

Rosizo employed its experts to confirm the non-cultural sector equipment status of objects of historical significance – vital for exporting dual-use technology for exhibition. Each enterprise had to formalise the ownership of its artefacts, thus resolving the issue of unaccountability. Second, acknowledgment of the artefacts as items of national heritage then opened the door to possible inclusion to the State Museum Fund. Such procedure will ensure the objects safety and provisions for appropriate care. Finally, Roscosmos and other space sector managers felt much more at ease signing loan agreements with Rosizo, a national cultural institution, rather than a foreign museum. It also helped Roscosmos to navigate the unfamiliar waters of the British rules and regulations on everything from health and safety to advising on the clauses of the British Government Indemnity Scheme or applicability of the Immunity from Seizure to their property.

Figure 17

Colour photograph from high elevation of the Intermuseum conference showing a number of conference stalls

Annual All-Russia museum festival Intermuseum presents the latest trends and aspirations in collections care, research, exhibitions and visitor experience. Organised by Rosizo in 2014 at the country’s most prestigious venue The Manezh

Apart from loan administration and consolidated shipping Rosizo also handled a large budget, allocated by the MoC to the project as the key event of the YoC. These funds enabled Rosizo to appoint a full-time member of staff to coordinate and administer the loans, as well as cover the cost of restoration, photography, framing, packing and shipping of the cultural sector loans and loan administration of the majority of space industry loans. In their turn, all lenders, including the state museums and archives, private individuals and space industry enterprises waived significant loan fees. Such support could only have been offered by the Russian side within the official framework of the bilateral YoC through a Russia-based partner. The funding was unprecedented in scale and was maintained even after the delayed exhibition opening fell outside the framework of the official YoC programme. Continued Russian government support of the project proved a key factor in the story of Cosmonauts

4.3 Governmental support

By now it will be evident that nothing on this project was straightforward. Thus we learnt very early on that even where we appeared to have the support of ‘the Russian government’ that meant little unless we had enlisted precisely the right elements of the government machine and specific individuals and ministries.

The inclusion of Cosmonauts in the 2014 Year of Culture programme ensured support on the ministerial level in Russia: Dr Shvydkoy on the Foreign Ministry (MFA) side, Deputy Minister Manilova on the MoC side. However, our key lenders from the space industry were not subject to the purview of these ministries and this was not a mere technicality.

With NPP Zvezda’s keen support and the willingness of some Roscosmos enterprises to collaborate, our main challenge was to secure written consent from Roscosmos and win the trust of RKK Energia. Their request was for the Science Museum to provide reassurances from both the UK and Russian governments. This included a statement of support from the Russian Government (although it was not clear what this meant) and a ‘comfort letter’ from the MFA also indicating their support. They also sought ‘cast iron’ guarantees from the UK’s government about the safety of the objects and immunity from seizure.

Such requests made sense in the context of some of the landscape we have outlined so far. These were organisations with no experience of the normal language and currency of museum lending and the Roscosmos reluctance could be traced to the aborted 2011 exhibition plan. Without doubt, it was also felt that this was a dance where no-one was prepared to commit to the floor, for fear of criticism, especially as the bilateral relationship worsened. And on a practical level, there were genuine and messy questions about status and legal issues, especially at a time when the Federal Space Agency was undergoing restructuring. It also felt that the political crisis of 2014–15, with EU sanctions against Russia over Ukraine and state property seizure related to the Yukos case, might be the ‘final straw’ for some lenders. Some of the press coverage around the exhibition suggested that this issue was the central and killer risk to the project proceeding (Art Newspaper, 2014), but the nervousness of some lenders derived from many sources.

We could not have overcome these problems without the good fortune of finding the right allies at the highest levels. In July 2013 the exhibition curators went to Parliament to present the exhibition to Lord Speaker Baroness D’Souza, in her role as UK Chair of the Organising Committee for the UK-Russia Year of Culture. Following this meeting an official letter addressed to Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Golodets in her capacity as the Russian Chair of Organising Committee was dispatched:

May I take this opportunity also to ask for your help with the exhibition of Russian space exploration that will open in October 2014 at the Science Museum in London. This will be a flagship event of the Year of Culture. The success of this exhibition depends on the inclusion of key historic spacecraft and artefacts of the Russian space programme, residing in the collection of the Roscosmos enterprises and institutions. My understanding is that a state order needs to be issued to ensure the release of those artefacts for loan. I am therefore respectfully asking, as Co-Chair of the Year of Culture Organising Committee, whether you could arrange for such an order to be issued.

This letter was the first of many addressed to officials in Russia, sent through diplomatic channels, and delivered to ministers and government offices throughout 2013–15. But this letter proved to be key in securing support from our strongest ally, Deputy Prime Minister Golodets. The Museum Director welcomed Ms Golodets at the Science Museum a few months later at the opening of the Collider exhibition – the launch of the Science Museum’s ambitious new programme of ground-breaking exhibitions. Attended by leading scientists Peter Higgs and Stephen Hawking as well as Chancellor George Osborne, the event left a lasting impression on the Deputy Prime Minister and convinced her that the Museum would deliver a world class exhibition.

Ms Golodets’ leadership and support proved to be crucial in deciding the fate of Cosmonauts. When RKK Energia subsequently failed to sign the loan agreement – putting the entire project on hold in August 2014 – she held an urgent meeting with officials from Roscosmos, MoC, MFA and RKK Energia. The outcome of this meeting was her instruction to Roscosmos to ensure the temporary loan of required artefacts from the enterprises to Rosizo for the exhibition

Even after this intervention, with the frosty political atmosphere of EU sanctions against Russia and the pending threat of Yukos-related seizures, all our partners were still seeking fresh MFA guidelines on the risk involved in sending loans to London. The Embassy of the Russian Federation in the UK and Ambassador HE Alexander Yakoveko offered strong support and advice from the earliest stages of the project. The Ambassador’s personal interest in the project was strengthened by the active role he had taken some years previously in establishing international legal regulations for space exploration. The support from Dr Yakovenko’s colleague Mikhail Shvydkoy, Special Envoy of the President of the Russian Federation for International Cultural Cooperation with the MFA, was also crucial. Dr Shvydkoy’s success in promoting Russian art and culture abroad derives from his formidable network of contacts among the international cultural sector, acquired in his former role of Culture Minister. Mr Blatchford and the curatorial team visited him several times in Moscow at his office in a Stalin-era skyscraper on Smolenskaya Square, rumoured to be previously occupied by Leonid Brezhnev’s son. From the very first meeting, he understood the audacity of the exhibition and all the ‘internal’ opposition it might encounter.

Figure 18

Colour photograph of HE Ambassador Yakovenko and Ian Blatchford accompanied by Head of Development Sue Fisher and Cosmonauts curator Natalia Sidlina inside the Russian Embassy

Official photograph of HE Ambassador Yakovenko and Ian Blatchford, accompanied by Cosmonauts curator Natalia Sidlina and Head of Development Sue Fisher, taken during one of many official meetings on 25 June 2015

The robust impact of such key players was that by Spring 2015 all of the lenders were clear on their government’s firm support for the project, but as the detailed plans for shipping the objects were being finalised both the British and Russian sides had to revisit the troublesome issue of seizure risk.

4.4 The final frontier: government indemnity and Immunity from Seizure

Several years before the Cosmonauts project was even a gleam in our eye, the Russian government had cause to be concerned about the safety and security of its cultural treasures when lent overseas. Not surprisingly, the perceived ‘crown jewel’ status of proposed loans and developments in the political and legal landscape meant that this anxiety could have been a deadly barrier to the project proceeding. But, to be frank, for some lenders the threat was both a real concern and also a not inconvenient narrative for impeding loan negotiations.

The loans to this exhibition came under the UK Government Indemnity Scheme and Immunity from Seizure regulations. Earlier in this paper it was emphasised that a Russian exhibition contributed to changing UK legislation, introducing Immunity from Seizure as Part 6, Section 136 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 (2007 Act). It confers protection on objects loaned from abroad for temporary public exhibitions at the approved venues, provided certain conditions are met (Part 6 of the Tribunals Courts and Enforcement Act 2007). This legislation was enacted following Russia’s threat of withdrawal of loans from the Royal Academy of Arts 2008 exhibition From Russia: French and Russian master paintings. Over 120 modern French and Russian paintings from the collections of the State Tretyakov Gallery, the State Russian Museum and the Hermitage were selected for this survey of the main trends of modern European painting from Realism to non-figurative avant-garde movements.

To enable the timely opening of the exhibition in January 2008, the 2007 Act was fast-tracked by the DSMC around Christmas 2007 to bring the legislation forward. With potential claims from the families of the former owners of the artworks nationalised after the October Revolution of 1917, Russian authorities did not want to take chances (Bridge, Batty, 2007). Russian lenders' insistence on getting immunity from seizure is based on the requirements of the MoC of the Russian Federation to provide the proof of the guarantees for the safe and timely return of the loans. Only 25 museums and galleries in the UK are approved venues for providing immunity from seizure to their lenders from abroad[16]. Timely application to DCMS for the approval to be granted should allow an institution planning to put Russian loans on display to be able to offer immunity to the lenders.

Since 2007 the Act has enabled an unprecedented number of unique loans to be displayed in the UK, such as Vermeer’s ‘The Lacemaker’ from the Musée du Louvre (Vermeer’s Women: Secret and Silence, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 2011–2012) and precious mosaics, sculptures and applied art from Pompeii and Herculaneum (Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, The British Museum, 2013), among others.[17]

However, whilst the legislation has enabled the continued flow of loan exhibitions between the UK and Russia, in other major countries the absence of such provision has had serious consequences. Since 2011 the entire interloans programme between the US and Russia has been paused (Grimsted, 2013) as a result of controversy over the relationship between the US Library of Congress and the Russian government over the Schneerson Collection court case (Bazyler, Gerber, 2010). The collection of archival and printed materials assembled by spiritual leaders of the Chabad Chasidic movement was partly nationalised by the Soviet state after the October 1917 revolution, partly seized by it from the Nazis in the course of the Second World War. The American Chabad-Lubavitch community leaders, heirs of the late Rebbe Schneerson, initiated a court case over the ownership of the Schneerson collection, currently held at the State Russian Library. In 2010 they won the case in the US District Court, which jurisdiction is not recognised by the Russian government. As the Library of Congress failed to return seven publications from the Schneerson collection, on temporary loan since 1994, the State Russian Library initiated a lawsuit in the Moscow Arbitration Court. The handling of this dispute ‘led to canceled loan agreements, revoked artworks, and strained diplomacy between the United States and the Russian Federation. The net effect has been to limit the international free flow of cultural property and to decrease the public’s access to that cultural property’ (Barcia, 2012, p 477). The latest positive trends, manifested by exhibitions borrowed from the USA such as Alexander Calder Retrospective from the Calder Foundation Collection and Other Private Collections exhibition at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow (9 June–30 August 2015), could be overshadowed by the new round of political hostilities.

As Cosmonauts proceeded, our partners in Russia became concerned that the UK might experience a comparable situation to that obtaining in the USA. On 18 July 2014 a panel at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague issued an order against the Russian Federation in respect of claims from Yukos shareholders (PCA Case No. AA 227). The former shareholders of this privately owned energy company were seeking compensation from the Russian Federation for unfair proceedings in a tax evasion case. The Permanent Court ruled against Russia, awarding the claimants $50 billion. As the claimants are now taking steps to enforce the awards in the EU with the Russian Government assets seized in France and Belgium, MoC is concerned about potential seizure of cultural heritage loaned abroad.

On 17 July 2015 a meeting between Culture Minister Medinsky and Federal museum directors issued a major new recommendation: that the applications for temporary international loans should only be considered when supported by guarantees by state authorities of the host country (Novosti Ministerstva, 2015). At this point two important object shipments had already been delivered to the Science Museum, but the bulk of exhibition objects were still in Russia. During June and July there was flurry of renewed examination – by both sides – of the legal position and protection offered by the UK immunity regime.

This was a difficult period for the project team because although we felt certain that the seizure provisions were very strong, we also had to accept that only our Russian partners could really make the final judgment on what degree of exposure and risk they were prepared to accept. From our viewpoint, the ‘right’ decision was made and the Ministry of Culture issued the final export licenses for the final shipments on 12 August 2015, enabling their timely arrival at the Museum for the exhibition installation.

Thus, the high political profile of the exhibition in the darkening atmosphere of EU sanctions caused a number of considerable organisational and logistical complications resulting in a delay in Cosmonauts delivery. Nevertheless, consistent support from state officials on both sides, an unshakeable commitment to the project from the Science Museum’s side, and strong partnership with our counterparts in Russia have permitted us to resolve the unfathomable number of complications and to finally open this long anticipated show to the public.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150406/005