$100M Expansion to Boost Hermitage

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Hermitage Museum plans to complete work by 2009 on a $100 million expansion that will allow more of the museum's collection to be on public display.

The new complex is part of the Hermitage's goal to increase access to its vast collection and to improve conditions for the conservation of its art works. Currently, only about 5 percent of the museum's collection is on display.

"We will try to finish it in three years," the museum's director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, said in an interview in his office in the Winter Palace, the museum's main building in central St. Petersburg. The new complex "is a state-of-the-art museum space that will allow us to experiment with different methods of exhibiting art works."

The Hermitage owns almost 3 million works, including impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces, ancient Scythian and Greek gold jewelry, a vast coin collection and works by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Improving storage for the art currently not on display is urgently needed, Piotrovsky said. The new complex, in a neighborhood of prefabricated, high-rise buildings and malls in northern St. Petersburg, will have up-to-date equipment, such as security and anti-fire systems, climate control and biological control units that guard against fungi and mold.

The Hermitage, which has small branches in London, Amsterdam and Kazan, is centered in five 19th-century buildings in downtown St. Petersburg. While those buildings are undergoing renovation, some parts are not equipped with modern climate control. They are also too small for the Hermitage's collection, and the construction work means the art has to be stored elsewhere.

"Even though we have a lot of space in the city center, people forget that much of it isn't meant for displaying art, but rather they're palace interiors," said Hermitage deputy director, Vladimir Matveyev. "We are trying to return those palace halls to their original appearance."

Work on the new storage complex, which overlooks a cemetery containing graves of those who perished during the Nazi blockade, began in the mid-1980s but came to a halt after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

When completed, the complex will consist of seven buildings and 50,000 square meters. Half of the space will store art works; the rest will be offices, conference halls and a customs clearing warehouse to ease the export of art on loan abroad.

One eight-story building is already completed and open to the public. A second is under construction.

Among items moved into the first building and shown to the public for the first time are a dozen gold-leafed, tsarist carriages, 12th-century Russian church frescoes and sixth- and eighth-century palace frescoes from Panjakent, an important city of the Sogdian civilization.