What we lose if the Hermitage in Amsterdam closes permanently


Last week, the Hermitage Amsterdam sounded the alarm. As director Anabelle Birnie announced the desperate situation the museum found itself in, her eyes drifted over the calm waters of the Amstel River. On the other side was the center of Amsterdam, normally one of the loudest and busiest places in all of Europe. Now it was as calm and empty as a country meadow.

The press conference started at 11:55 a.m., symbolic time, as the Hermitage Amsterdam may be nearing its last hour. After enduring several months of grueling lockdown policies that kept locals indoors and tourists in their home countries, the museum will perhaps remember 2020 and 2021 as the most difficult two years of its tumultuous existence. , that is, if he manages to survive them.

The Hermitage Amsterdam has not come this far without sacrifices. As with most organizations hit hard by the pandemic, it was the oldest and dearest employees – those with the largest families to support and those with less opportunity to change careers – who were the first from. After laying off 25% of its full-time staff, including those who had been there since opening day, the museum finally hit bottom of its reserves last month.

Because the Hermitage is a private institution not eligible for government aid, it is now asking for one million euros in donations by May 1. It remains to be seen whether this ambitious sum can be raised in time. It’s hard to say if this will even be enough to survive the pandemic. With the Dutch still not finished vaccinating their elderly – a slow process even slower by vaccine booster shots by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson – Hermitage Amsterdam could experience a long, cold winter.

The entrance to the 2017 exhibition 1917. Romanovs in Revolutia (2017)

“We really need you now, ”state various promotional videos made for the impromptu crowdfunding campaign. Historians stand next to sparkling Faberge eggs once held by emperors. Teachers explain how important the museum’s educational programs are to children in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Even Mikhail Piotrovsky, the stern and stoic director of the First State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, participates in it. “Houd de Hermitage open [Keep the Hermitage open]He pleads, slowly but with respectable pronunciation.

Naturally, Amsterdam’s crowdfunding campaign focuses on its collections to capitalize on the sympathy of art lovers. But while the museum’s cultural significance is widely recognized and celebrated, the Dutch Hermitage also serves another, less obvious, political purpose. Namely, he is an ambassador to Russia, a country which, thanks to its leader, is losing foreign allies faster than it can count and therefore becomes more and more inaccessible to the outside world.

The annexation of Crimea by the Kremlin, interference in foreign and national elections and the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny have fueled criticism of Vladimir Putin. Sadly, the conviction against him frequently derails and ends up harming the old, complex, multi-ethnic and multicultural society he instead wishes to rule – and that does more harm than good.

“Russia’s international image is more negative than positive,” announced a Pew Research report published in 2017. At the time, less than 26% of the world’s population trusted in Putin’s abilities as a leader. At the same time, only 34% had a favorable opinion of Russia as a whole. Attitudes towards the country and its people reached an all time high in Europe when the survey was carried out.

Anti-Russian sentiment is as old as the Russian state. It appears in the countries of Eastern Europe where the older generations – remembering the Soviet occupation from childhood – struggle to separate the Russian identity from imperialist Bolshevism. It continues in North America where, fueled by memories of the Cold War, former director of national intelligence James Clapper said that Russian opposition to democracy is deeply ingrained in their genetic code. “Russia is always synonymous with ‘communism’, even when that equation makes no sense,” wrote Elliot Borenstein, professor of Russian and Slavic studies at New York University, in response to the Lincoln Project, which, according to him, was unnecessarily xenophobic. “This is not a defense of Putin or his policies [but] a call to remember the consequences of this type of demonization.

A bronze bust of Vladimir Lenin welcoming visitors to the 2017 exhibition 1917. Romanovs in Revolutia (2017)

This is where the Hermitage comes in. Piotrovsky and the other administrators of Petersburg may have the power to decide which collections are shipped across Europe and which remain locked in the vaults of the Winter Palace, but once as art arrives in the Netherlands, the Hermitage in Amsterdam is more or less free to do whatever it wants. The museum works with local artists to organize layouts and engages local historians to write curatorial texts and catalogs.

Much of the works on display inside the Hermitage in Amsterdam tell stories about the country that its modern rulers have actively sought to erase. For example, one of the last exhibits to open before the outbreak of the pandemic centered on the Romanov’s long-lost jewelry collections. Pearl necklaces and emerald crowns, once used to signal anything from sexual readiness to diplomatic relations, were pledged by the Communists to fund their new regime and took centuries to claim. antique shops and collectors across Europe.

Visitors from afar to see the Romanov jewelry collections at the 2019 exhibition Jewelry! Sparkling at the Russian court (2019)

Other exhibitions, such as 1917. Romanov and Revolution, have made even bolder statements. According to Henk Kern, professor of history at the University of Leiden, this exhibition, organized around the centenary of the October Revolution, presents an “independent story that does not correspond to the scenario that was distributed by the Kremlin”. Conservation texts and press releases attributed the fall of the Russian Empire to the incompetence of the Czar and not to the actions of the revolutionaries.

To a non-Russian viewer, this may seem like an insignificant little detail. But for someone who lives in a society where history has long been a part of politics, it can make all the difference. Putin is often referred to as an “anti-revolutionary conservative”. His regime salutes the loyal Red Army soldiers who crushed Hitler to protect their homeland, but condemns the Marxist revolutionaries who overthrew the monarchy and killed the Tsar.

“Unless you’re an expert, it’s hard to find information about Russia that doesn’t have Putin’s name in the headlines,” Ellen Rutten, professor of Slavic literature at the University, told me. from Amsterdam, via WhatsApp. “Our Hermitage is one of the few places in the country to welcome a mass public who Is show a different side of Russia, although some exhibits are a bit romantic.

Pearl necklaces and golden pocket watches at the 2019 show Jewelry! Sparkling at the Russian court (2019)

The Hermitage Amsterdam is the teenage daughter of the former St. Petersburg State Hermitage: fiercely independent in some ways, terribly dependent in others. As mentioned, not a single work of art leaves Petersburg without the approval of Piotrovsky, whose conservative vision sets the parameters his Dutch colleagues are supposed to adhere to but – in their characteristic Dutch way – always try to bypass.

While Piotrovsky was elected director of the Petersburg Hermitage before Putin came to power, the fact that he is still there suggests that the two are on good terms with each other. Piotrovsky called Putin “the most cultured leader since Nicholas II”. The president, honoring Piotrovsky with the Order of Friendship in 2016, thanked him for “preserving our rich historical, cultural and spiritual heritage”.

Considering that Piotrovsky was one of 75 people who helped Putin rewrite Russia’s constitution so that he could stay in power until 2036, this latest comment should not be taken lightly. Add this to the fact that the Petersburg Hermitage is planning to install satellites in Omsk, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok, and it could be argued that the Hermitage will have the infrastructure to promote state-approved historical narratives in all of Russia.

Others praise St. Petersburg for bringing works of art from big cities to some of the most remote parts of the country, not to mention across the border to the satellites of Amsterdam, London and Italy. A former Russian-Arabic performer, Piotrovsky also has close ties to museums in Oman and Mumbai, and recently traveled to Dallas, Texas, hoping to end a decade-long hiatus in the past. object visa exchanges with the United States.

“A museum is a dialogue of cultures that replaces the wars of memory,” Piotrovsky said in an interview with Sotheby’s, referring to the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war. His duty, he says, is “to show all sides of history.” Asked about the Petersburg Hermitage in particular, the director said that it “does not belong only to Russia, but to the whole world”.

Whether you believe or agree with Piotrovsky’s statements, it cannot be denied that the Hermitage in Amsterdam offers something that is becoming increasingly difficult to find: a side of Russia that escapes the shadow of Putin. Exhibits that delve deeper into the life and times of tsars, tsarines, writers, painters, tailors, jewelers and revolutionaries reveal a country and a people who should not be hated for its vices, but admired for its achievements and its beauty.

If the financially independent museum is forced to close its doors, a valuable bridge between two different worlds will be irretrievably lost. It would not only be a huge loss for the Amsterdam art scene, but for Europe as a whole. Without a kind of neutral ground like the Hermitage in Amsterdam, exchanges between East and West are likely to come to a halt. Anti-Russian sentiment could then spread like a virus, making it harder for countries to navigate both a present that Putin is in charge of and a future that he will not be.

The Hermitage in Amsterdam has yet to reveal whether the million euros has been raised. Just days after the museum began its crowdfunding campaign, the Dutch government – in honor of Museum Week – announced it would ease COVID restrictions to give the cultural industry some leeway . Nearly 40,000 tickets have been distributed to institutions, to be sold to any visitor who has passed a rapid COVID-19 test. Compared to pre-pandemic sales, this is little more than breadcrumbs given to a starving man. Still, it’s better than nothing.

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