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Russia: Hermitage Museum Launches Expansion Projects

  • John Varoli

St. Petersburg, 11 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - Despite Russia's financial problems, St. Petersburg's world-famous Hermitage Museum has launched several projects totaling some $160 million, in order to increase the amount of exhibition space and visitor comfort.

The improvements will be privately financed. The first is a seven million dollar project to move the museum's main entrance from the cramped and congested Palace Embankment to the spacious Palace Square.

But, when the project will be finished is still anyone's guess. Yevgenii Fyodorov, senior officer at the Hermitage's development office, told RFE/RL that the Palace Square entrance might be ready in one year, or maybe in three. In his own words, "It all depends on how well we raise money."

The Hermitage is a federal institution, so little more needs to be said about its financial situation. In 1997, the museum received only about 44 percent of the 77 million rubles ($12.4 million) that was originally approved in the budget, and only 14 percent of what it originally asked for.

Besides the new entrance, the Danish government has donated a new $500,000 heating system. Finnish and Russian sponsors are also working on a new sewer system that will reduce the risk of water seepage in the building's basement.

Though the moisture is certainly bad for the foundation, art lovers can rest easy. Popular opinion holds that the Hermitage stores its works of art in the basement, but the museum says this is untrue.

While a $7 million project may appear to be ambitious enough in these troubled times, the Hermitage has even bigger plans. Sometime next year, the museum will start occupying an additional 40,000 square meters of space in the General Staff Building, the sprawling, neo-classical building that runs the southern length of Palace Square.

The badly needed space will allow the Hermitage to exhibit more its vast art collection. Currently only five percent of it is on display.

Though the first several rooms will open sometime in 1999, complete renovations of the new building, which for decades served as the headquarters of the Leningrad Military authorities, will take at least another 15 years and cost no less than $150 million, according to Hermitage Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky. As he told RFE/RL, "We'll be lucky to have it done in time for the Hermitage's 250th anniversary in 2014."

Once open, the new gallery space will go towards the Hermitage's decorative arts collection -- furniture, costumes, tapestries, jewelry, historical weapons, and porcelain and glass.

But Piotrovsky hopes that the Hermitage's latest addition will be much more than just a gallery. He wants part of the space to go toward a cultural center that will turn the museum into an living institution.

There are ideas afoot to have interactive computer centers for children, workshops that teach different crafts, contemporary art galleries, virtual reality halls, drama and movie theaters, as well as cafes and shops.

Since the state has no money, the museum is counting on donors and private investors to pick up the slack, especially foreign ones. But Piotrovsky expects Russia's new capitalist barons to pitch in.

While some might think the project too ambitious, Piotrovsky is determined to go forward. "Some say the tough economic situation in Russia does not allow for large-scale undertakings," he says. "But," he adds, "in fact, history has shown that the best way to exit economic crises is by embarking on such projects and not just sitting around twiddling one's thumbs."