THE HERMITAGE Art within art

One of the world's most important museums is planning a major expansion. But there won't be any fund-raising drive. No major alterations. And no new wings, named after some benevolent contributor, either.

And museum officials are quick to stress that the museum's ``new'' look won't differ much from the old, despite the millions that will be spent over the next 15 years.

In fact, it's by way of reassurance that deputy museum curator Vitaly Suslov stresses that the planned changes will be as invisible as possible.

Already in the front ranks of world museums, the Hermitage, here in Leningrad, plans to nearly double in size by the end of the century.

Like the Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage is planning a new, underground entrance. A complicated new humidity and temperature control system is on the drawing boards. And the hermitage, still recovering from the shock of a vandal's attack on one of its most important art treasures, is also eyeing a new computerized security system.

But Suslov, in a recent interview, made it clear that in planning for the Hermitage of the next century, it's overseers will be tempered by the last two.

For the Hermitage is one of the world's few museums in which the physical structure is as breathtakingly beautiful and historically important as the art it contains.

Housed chiefly in the former Winter Palace of Catherine the Great, the Hermitage contains some three million items, only a fraction of which are on public display. The baroque splendor of gold leaf and marble, intricate parquet floors and elaborately embellished ceilings offer a stunning setting for one of the world's most important art collections, ranging from van Dycks and Rembrandts to Cezannes and Picassos.

``But you shouldn't consider the Hermitage as simply an art museum,'' stresses Suslov.

``It's a huge museum of the history of art and world culture.''

Among its collections are primitive stone-age tools and ornamented gimcrackery from Elizabethan England, Schythian gold, Greek sculptures and the clothing of Russian nobility.

These items are displayed in some 400 rooms, some of which are studies in classical symmetry and restraint, others audaciously opulent.

Marvelous as it was a palace, however, the Hermitage was never intended to be open to the public. It was, first and foremost, a residence for Russia's czars and a showplace for its nobility. And that is the source of some of the museum's problems today.

Catherine the Great placed the first 225 art works in the Hermitage in 1764, and subsequent generations of czars and czarinas expanded the collection. Even so, the galleries were open only to the royal family and retinue.

The Romanov dynasty continued to collect important works until it fell in February, 1917. The Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace in October of that year and arrested the provisional government -- ending Russia's brief flirtation with rudimentary democracy. A year later, the Hermitage was turned into a public museum. Today, it is officially known as the ``State Hermitage,'' with the Soviet government as its custodian and chief source of financial support. The admission fee is only one rouble (about dollars 1.40 at current exchange rates.)

``(Bartolommeo) Rastrelli (the Winter Palace's original architect) could not have envisaged how things would have developed,' says Suslov, with a wry smile.

After the revolution, the subsequent expropriation of the property of the Russian nobility increased the museum's holdings four-fold. Over a million items were evacuated from the Hermitage to the Ural Mountains during World War II, and the museum was closed for four years. Nazi bombs and artillery fire caused some damage, but the museum reopened in late 1945. In the post-war years, specialized departments for restoration, preservation and archeologic study expanded in the warren of Hermitage rooms. In the post-war years -- and especially within the past decade -- the number of visitors has leaped upward. Now, some 2.5 million people a year roam through the hermitage, with some 25,000 coming on some summer days when the number of foreign tourists to Russia peaks.

``Now,'' says Suslov, ``there isn't enough space.''

The hermitage already occupies five buildings, having long ago spilled out of the confines of the Winter Palace. Plans are to occupy five more, two of them -- like the Winter Palace itself -- are along the banks of the Neva River. Floor space will jump from 100,000 square meters to 175,000.

At the same time, the Hermitage will try to address some of the problems that have come with growth and changing times -- among them, the problem of security.

Leningrad, a riverine city in the northern latitudes, surrounded by marshes, has a climate that is a museum curator's nightmare. It is dry and cold in winter, yet steamy in summer. Efforts to regulate the interior humidity and temperature are hampered by the hermitage's drafty passages, high ceilings and balky windows and doors. Portable humidifiers and fans are used now to regulate the inside air, but without much effect.

Suslov says the museum staff has now assembled a ``climatic portrait'' of every room in the Hermitage. Working with a Finnish engineering firm, museum officials are planning a compressed air system that should give a measure of control over the interior's temperature and humidity. Most of the air ducts are already in place, thanks to Rastrelli and other architects, who put fireplaces in servant's quarters in the basement and channeled their heat to the royal family's living quarters through intricate air passages hidden in the walls.

Until recently, Hermitage officials thought they could manage without the elaborate security arrangements evident in other museums. That belief fell away in one horrifying momemt in June, 1985, when a mentally disturbed man flung acid and slashed the canvas of Rembrandt's ``Danae.''

Museum officials say a thick surface coat of lacquer -- plus the quick rinsing of the canvas with water -- prevented extensive damage, and report that the restoration and repair process is going well.

Still, the incident has clearly shaken Soviet officials.

``We didn't have a single case of this (sort of thing) before,'' says Suslov, adding that the Hermitage staff is still working out strategies to improve security.

In the meantime, uniformed and armed militia prevent visitors from carrying bags into the exhibit halls. But the Hermitage relies upon a unique security corps. The primary guardians of the exhibits are a legion of ``babushkas'' (grandmothers) stationed in most of the Hermitage rooms. Armed with stern looks and stout countenances, most can silence a boisterous student group with a single withering glance. And a careless visitor who leans on a priceless marble-top table quickly learns never to repeat the offense.

Suslov says the babushkas will continue to play a key role in any future security scheme.

``These babushkas are the best security. They don't let anybody touch anything,'' he says with a smile.

``But, frankly speaking, we still have the problem (of security),'' he admits, ``and it's a problem for many museums.''

Hermitage officials are considering a wide range of options, from the widespread use of electronic proximity alarms to glass ``walls'' that would enclose the most valuable exhibits.

But they hope the more draconian measures won't be necessary.

``You can't imagine the Hermitage (with glass partitions),'' says Dmitri Warygin, deputy director for international relations.

``There must be a live contact with a piece of art,'' says Suslov.

Indeed, there are few other museums in the world where a view can still stand eye to eye with a Cezanne character, or examine smallest brush strokes of a Monet in search of his technique or, more importantly, his inspiration.

And that, says Suslov, is what a museum is all about.

``A museum is a storing place for the ideas of humans, from generation to generation,'' he says.

He predicts that by the time the Hermitage renovation is over -- in the year 2000 -- museums here and elsewhere will have an even broader role in society.

``Experience shows us that each generation has more of an interest in the past than the preceding one.'' Far from fading away in the face of television, video and other diversions, museums, he says, will attract even more visitors, and many will eventually incorporate libraries, theaters, parklands, and cultural centers.

People will come to them, ``not only to learn, but also to create with their own hands.''

``Museums,'' he concludes, ``will take on a more and more important part in the spiritual life of human beings.''

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