Hermitage Amsterdam: A Dream Realized
- By Timofei Brusnikin
- Mar. 16 2010 00:00
For Hermitage Amsterdam director Ernst Veen, his new museum is the result of a perfect alchemy of 30 years' worth of interests that have taken form together within its walls: art; exhibitions; Amsterdam; Russia; St. Petersburg; and, of course, the Russian Hermitage museum.
"In the 1980s, when the Iron Curtain was still down, I learned that there was a wonderful museum in the north of Russia," recalled Veen, who is also director of Amsterdam's Nieuwe Kerk exhibition center, in a recent interview. "I wrote the Hermitage a letter about putting on an exhibition about Peter the Great's trip to the Netherlands — and that was the start of a marvelous relationship of cooperation."
Now, after countless trips to what has become for him a beloved museum and the founding of an organization devoted to expanding the audience of the iconic Russian institution, Veen's almost 15-year-old ambition is finally being realized: The Hermitage will have a permanent second home in the Netherlands.
"It is my baby," said Veen. "It has been in my head and in my heart for so long now. It was really a dream, and the dream is finally coming true — or at least it seems it is!"
As the whirlwind preparations of curators, administrators and public officials profess, the vision laid out a decade ago by Veen and his counterpart at the Russian Hermitage, Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky, is indeed taking form — and the two directors are far and away not the only ones eagerly awaiting the museum's June 19 gala opening. Along with the crowds of European visitors expected to fill the halls of the newly renovated Amstelhof building that will house the museum, both the Dutch and Russian heads of state, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, will attend the unveiling of what is surely the world's most stunning monument to Dutch-Russian cooperation.
"The participation of the two heads of state in the opening of the [new] Hermitage center indicates the meaning that culture plays in the relations between the two countries," said Piotrovsky. "It also underlines the uniqueness and international significance of the Hermitage Amsterdam project."
"International" has been a word on Piotrovsky's mind ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event that cleared a path for the Hermitage to make its presence known to the world. The museum director went in search of a suitable site for expansion, and, instead of one, he found half a dozen, including exhibition spaces in London, Ferrara (in Italy), and Amsterdam, where a compact predecessor to the new center has been in existence since 2004.
Such aggressive franchising may seem odd — after all, how many museums have outposts spread throughout half of Europe? Piotrovsky has but a simple, if also selfish, cause at heart, though: helping to put the artifacts of the Hermitage on as wide display as possible.
"The central goal of this practice is to make our collections maximally accessible to the entire world," said Piotrovsky. "The practice is part of the development plan for the Large Hermitage, and years of experience with these international Hermitage exhibition centers shows that, in fact, they push the majority of people to visit the main museum."
History on display
At the new Amsterdam center, not only will visitors have the chance to peek into the St. Petersburg museum while still within the walls of the Amstelhof (through a virtual tour available on touch screens and in short films), but part of the home base in Russia is literally built into the new Dutch satellite: a ground plan of the St. Petersburg Hermitage is etched into the parquet floor of one of the rooms.
Many other traces of (and, of course, exhibit items from) the Russian Hermitage leave tracks throughout the Amstelhof, but there are also extensive materials that ignore the Hermitage and make the focus Russia and the Netherlands — and others yet that leave out Russia, giving priority to history of the Netherlands and to the Amstelhof building, the 17th-century classicist gem that houses the Hermitage Amsterdam.
Multiple rooms in the square structure along the River Amstel are reserved for permanent presentations on its 300-plus-year history, over which, until two years ago, its only residents were elderly people who needed extra care. The architectural monument, which was also both a covetable piece of real estate and a rapidly decaying building, was finally declared unfit to house them in the mid-1990s. As Veen tells it, the Dutch Protestant Church, then the owners, approached him and asked plainly, "Do you have an idea?"
"I said, 'Show me the building,'" said Veen. "All the Dutch know the building, know that 102-meter-long facade. They showed it to me, and I fell in love with it, just like I fell in love with the Hermitage after my first visit."
After being closed two years for renovations, all the Dutch who know the building, as well as what Veen is expecting to be bevies of other peoples, will have an equal chance of being charmed by the Amstelhof. And while the more than 4,000 meters of exhibition space occupy much of the building, they are far from the only attraction. Visitors can easily spend all day in the center without a tiresome minute: perhaps first dropping the kids at the Hermitage for Children education center; then sampling Russian delicacies at the cafe-restaurant Neva; stopping in the auditorium for an art history lecture; and even taking in a classical concert, many of which are already booked at the center for this summer.
"The Hermitage Amsterdam is an enormous enrichment to the cultural climate in the city," noted Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen. "It adds to the diversity that already exists in Amsterdam, and, together with the city's already established museums, the opening of the Hermitage Amsterdam can truly be a reason for people to stay an extra day in the city."
It may seem that Amsterdam won quite the lottery by receiving the new Hermitage center, but as Cohen points out, "It is not by chance that the largest independent annex of the Hermitage is opening in Amsterdam. There is a close connection that dates back centuries."
Amsterdam is in fact not only tied to St. Petersburg — it was, by many accounts, the inspiration for the blueprint drawn by the Russian city's namesake, the celebrated 18th-century tsar Peter the Great. The young Romanov ruler spent time in Amsterdam in 1697 as part of his extensive European travels and studied the world-famous Dutch shipbuilding techniques as well as the Dutch capital's canals. The same methodology used in Amsterdam's waterways is visible in those that crisscross Russia's northern capital.
Knowledge of naval engineering was not the only thing taken by the tsar from his much-remembered trip to the Netherlands, though — he also acquired an admiration for Dutch art, which prompted him to begin a collection of paintings that would be significantly expanded by one of his most influential successors, Catherine the Great. The masterpieces in her first major purchases included 13 Rembrandts and a number of works by Dutch and Flemish artists, which formed what would become the first set of artworks to adorn the walls of the Winter Palace, the main building of the still royally splendorous Hermitage.
Now, that connection between the cities and cultures is being renewed and celebrated on an only slightly less regal scale, only instead of Dutch valuables traveling to Russia, cherished pieces of the world-class Hermitage collection are making the trip to Europe, many for the first time.
"I have noticed a real interest from Russians in the Dutch, and we, we are a small country — we are interested in expansive Russia," noted Veen. "The Dutch are hungry to see more."
The first view of Russia that the Dutch and other visitors of the new Hermitage satellite will receive will be the world of Peter and Catherine's royal successors during an era made vivid by its literary recorders — the pomp-filled 19th century. "At the Russian Court: Palace and Protocol in the 19th Century" will display the rare threads of ceremonial court dress, like the glitzy ball gowns and tassel-and-button uniforms of the tsars and their party guests. Historically significant mementos will also be featured, such as old programs from the Mariinsky Theater, glorified gewgaws, including meerschaum and amber pipes and a Faberge-designed snuff box, and more than 1,800 more accessories made in the period for society's rarefied strata.
Preparation for the exhibition — one of the largest ever put on by the Hermitage, which is accustomed to shifting around its collection of more than 3 million objects in the generous comforts of the Large Hermitage building, as opposed to selecting and assembling a road show — occupied some 300 Hermitage restorers, researchers, logistical staff and others off and on for two years.
"Practically the entire Hermitage, all the departments, helped out, because without that work, we simply could not have pulled it together," said curator of "At the Russian Court" Vyacheslav Fyodorov, head of the Russian culture department at the Hermitage. "There was an enormous amount of restoration work that needed to be done — practically all the objects had to go through the restoration laboratory — and the collection of objects we selected was incredible, from metals and etchings to costumes, stones, sculptures — everything we have in the Hermitage, it seemed!"
It does not include everything, of course. In fact, the exhibition, while admittedly grandiose, will feature an impossibly small .07 percent of the Hermitage's encyclopedic collection — although they do plan to continue combing the archives for more to send on six-month stints to the new museum. After the Russian court has its half-year in the spotlight, the focus will turn West, with an exhibition of highlights from the Hermitage's impressive store of works by canonical artists such as Braque, Matisse and Picasso, before returning to the exploits of Eastern monarchs with an exhibition titled "Alexander the Great. The Road to the East." Some future exhibitions will borrow works from the country's other leading museums, such as the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
As Veen points out, these Eurasian treasures will provide the Hermitage-Amsterdam a niche among the city's other international draws as well as a significant contribution of its own, both in the cultural realm and, consequently, as an instrument of diplomacy.
"We have a great number of museums in Amsterdam, and doing what others do is not very interesting," said Veen. "But if you can create a new initiative, which is what we have presented to our Dutch colleagues, we can enrich the cultural climate of Amsterdam and the Netherlands.
"I am convinced that culture can play an important role in cooperation between nations. I believe that Europe needs Russia and Russia needs Europe, and I think that we can learn more about one another from the stories in museums."