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Hermitage Amsterdam is now H’ART, cutting ties with Russia – DW – 09/01/2023


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, the Hermitage Amsterdam was officially opened by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and the then Russian interim president, Dmitry Medvedev.

In the following years, more than a dozen lavishly staged exhibitions were held there, filled with exhibits from the immense depots of the Russian Hermitage, which, with more than three million items, is one of the largest and richest museums in the world.

Russia's former president Dmitry Medvedev and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands sign the guest book at the Hermitage opening in Amsterdam.
Queen Beatrix was the first visitor to sign the Hermitage guest book, while Dmitry Medvedev (right) looked onImage: Marcel Antonisse/dpa/picture alliance

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, then the number 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.

View of an exhibition at a museum with pictures, showcases, costumes and furniture.
The ‘Catherine the Great’ exhibition in Amsterdam was a crowd puller in 2016Image: Remko de Waal/AFP/Getty Images

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 pro-Putin Hermitage director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, convened a crisis meeting at the end of February and complained 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.

Due to this ignorance, the Hermitage had to retrieve hundreds of invaluable exhibits at turbo speed and amid the turmoil of war.

These included, for example, two Titian masterpieces that had been loaned for an exhibition to Milan’s Palazzo Reale, or 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.

So, while the Russian main house had to deal with completely different problems, the Amsterdam branch was abandoned. This was not viable for the more than 12,000 square meters of exhibition space in the middle of the Dutch tourist metropolis. In a show of creative solidarity, the other Amsterdam art houses came to its aid and together developed the idea of a museum for “Dutch Heritage” 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 whole thing also served as a successful intro to the Vermeer mega-show in 2023.

Exterior view of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The Hermitage in Saint Petersburg lies along the River NevaImage: GES-Sportfoto/picture alliance

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 the Hermitage Amsterdam, is also quoted as saying that in the past decade and a half “a brilliant museum has been created” that has 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.

Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the St. Petersburg Hermitage, in one of the halls of his museum.
Hermitage Director Mikhail Piotrovsky relied on close contacts with EuropeImage: Belinsky Yuri/TASS/dpa/picture-alliance

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. 

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