$50M Expansion for Kremlin Museum

The State Kremlin Museum, the repository of Russia's national regalia and home to some of its most important historical landmarks, is celebrating its 200th birthday with construction later this year of a $50 million building to increase exhibition and office space.

"All our storage, restoration labs and exhibition space is currently crammed into several historical buildings inside the Kremlin walls, and there's nowhere to expand," said the museum's general director, Yelena Gagarina. "The new building will give us more space and better working conditions."

After several years of restoration, the museum is reopening the 16th-century Belfry of Ivan the Great, the tallest structure in the Kremlin, and new exhibition halls in the 17th-century Patriarch's Palace.

With about 23,000 square meters, the building will double the museum's current space. Designs call for conservation labs, storage space and exhibition halls in a five-story structure -- three floors above ground and two below.

The new building will be paid for by the federal government. Once construction is completed, it will be the museum's first building beyond the Kremlin's walls since Emperor Alexander I created the institution in 1806 to preserve the imperial treasures.

Slated for an empty grassy plot next to the presidential entrance to the Kremlin, the new building will allow visitors to see exhibitions without standing in long lines to go through security and enter the Kremlin.

While the president's offices occupymany buildings, the museum has jurisdiction over the Kremlin's churches and palaces, most of which were designed by Italian architects. One of the gems is the mid-19th-century Armory, which houses such national regalia as the Cap of Monomakh, Ivan the Terrible's throne and nine Faberge Imperial Easter Eggs.

The $50 million cost of the new building does not include outfitting it with state-of-the-art equipment. In that case, the cost of the project could almost double, Gagarina said .

Construction might face delays, however, due to the archeological digs required by law. Moscow's center has the remains of past centuries just below the surface. The first settlements in and around the Kremlin date to the 12th century. During construction of the neighboring shopping center on Manezhnaya Ploshchad in the mid-1990s, builders came across the remains of a medieval Russian Orthodox monastery and cemetery, as well as a 17th-century bridge.

"I expect we will find many interesting things," Gagarina said, adding that past digs in and near the Kremlin revealed caches of coins and weapons.

The celebrations, which began last week, also include a series of exhibitions, new books and concerts, and the creation of an international friends society.

Gagarina, whose father, Yury Gagarin, was the first man to orbit the earth in a 1961 space flight, became director in 2001 by presidential decree. She said her main goal was to make the museum more accessible to the public.

"Our museum is trying to find the best way to reach contemporary audiences," Gagarina said. "Today's visitors are very different from the ones who came to the museum in Soviet times."