All visitors to Amsterdam who have taken a canal trip will be familiar with the building: It’s a beautiful palace right on the River Amstel, a brick building with a striking white portal that was built in the 17th century as Diaconie Oude Vrouwen Huys, or “Nursing Home for Old Women.”
In the early 2000s, the building was rededicated as an institution for the arts. With support from the Dutch, a branch of the Saint Petersburg Hermitage, called Hermitage Amsterdam, was established here.
The elaborate renovation, which is said to have cost over €40 million ($43 million), was financed by Russia; officially, a private foundation registered in the United Kingdom at the time was behind the project.
Incidentally, this was not the first attempt by the famous Saint Petersburg museum to establish some sort of permanent representation in the West. There was already a branch in London from 2000 to 2007 and in Las Vegas from 2001 to 2008.
Magnificent Russian collections
In 2009, Hermitage Amsterdam was officially opened by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and Russia’s then interim president, Dmitry Medvedev.
In the following years, more than a dozen lavishly staged exhibitions were held there, filled with pieces from the immense depots of Russia’s Hermitage. With more than 3 million items, the museum is one of the largest and richest in the world.
Private treasures of the Russian tsars, antique gold, Persian miniatures and masterpieces by Caspar David Friedrich from the Russian collections were presented in Amsterdam — to name just a few high-profile projects.
Over 700,000 visitors saw the opening show. Numbers then leveled off at around 450,000 visitors per year. This put the museum securely in fifth place in the ranking of art museums in the tourist mecca of Amsterdam, overtaken only by the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh, Stedelijk and Amsterdam museums respectively. Admission costs €10 on average, so the investment certainly paid off even after deducting all incidental costs.
Of course, the business model of a museum empire with exhibitions that move from one branch to another is not new. The Louvre in Paris, for example, operates a successful branch in Abu Dhabi, and the Guggenheim museums are also a globally operating consortium.
Art in the crosshairs
On February 24, 2022 — the day Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine — the Hermitage was showing an exhibition of the so-called Russian avant-garde, which had opened shortly before.
Then, on March 3, the exhibition and the museum were closed.
According to Saint Petersburg insiders, the museum’s pro-Putin Hermitage director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, convened a crisis meeting at the end of February, complaining among his close staff that he — as the “museum prince of Russia” — had not been informed of the plans for the invasion of Ukraine in time.
Amid the turmoil of launching the war on Ukraine, the Hermitage had to retrieve hundreds of invaluable artworks — not just from Amsterdam, but from elsewhere. These included two Titian masterpieces that were on loan in Italy as well as 23 pieces of the traveling exhibition “Grand Tour. Dream of Italy from Venice to Pompeii.”
The return transport of the famous Mozorov Collection from a Paris exhibition to various Russian museums also proved to be a major logistical and diplomatic problem, especially since some of the works also came from Ukrainian holdings.
While Russia’s Hermitage staff was dealing with all of this, the Amsterdam branch was abandoned. But in a show of creative solidarity, the other art houses in Amsterdam came to its aid. Together they developed the idea of a Dutch Heritage museum as a transitional model.
First, the neighboring Rijksmuseum loaned one of its iconic works, Vermeer’s “Milkmaid.” An exhibition on the history of the painting and the Delft painter’s craft was arranged around the masterpiece. The exhibition also served as a successful introduction to the Vermeer mega-show in 2023.
Hermitage and H’ART Museum: A clean break?
Now Hermitage and the H’ART Museum have officially separated. Despite the circumstances, it looks like a clean break. As of September 1, the Amsterdam museum officially bears a new name, the H’ART Museum.
Both sides have engaged in an exchange of pleasantries: The Saint Petersburg Hermitage published an official statement on its homepage praising more than 15 years of joint success. Hermitage Director Piotrovsky regrets the separation imposed by politics and wishes the new project all the best “in the care of the national cultural heritage.”
Annabelle Birnie, the longtime director of Hermitage Amsterdam, is also quoted as saying that in the past decade and a half “a brilliant museum has been created” that inspired millions of people.
In a statement in the Russian press, she also expresses the hope that the bad times may soon be over, so that cooperation with the Saint Petersburg Hermitage can be resumed.
Until then, her house would “bring art from all over the world to Amsterdam and present it in a new and unexpected way.”
Three top-rate international players have been identified as new partners: the British Museum in London, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.
This article was originally written in German.