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In tough times, new Hermitage Amsterdam offers gilded oasis

What economic crisis? Organizers of the new museum promise one of the most 'lavish' exhibitions ever to hit Europe.

By Joel WeickgenantContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 19, 2009

Visitors use one of the entrances to the museum during a press preview of the Hermitage Amsterdam museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Thursday. Russian President Medvedev and Dutch Queen Beatrix will officially open the museum on Friday evening, and it will open its doors to the public on Saturday.

Peter Dejong/AP

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The Russian satellite about to debut on the banks of the Amstel River this month will never take flight: its mission is cultural and its structure includes massive stone blocks.

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But the launch of Hermitage Amsterdam culminates years of cooperation between cultural leaders in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Amsterdam and represents a new kind of takeoff for one of the art world's giants: The State Hermitage Museum, which holds about 3 million works of art in its vaults on the Neva River.

"These days we've got a lot of adrenaline, in a positive way, because a dream becomes reality," says Ernst Veen, director of Hermitage Amsterdam. The Hermitage "belongs to the world, and we must open it to the world."

The opening Saturday of Hermitage Amsterdam reinforces ties that are as old as St. Petersburg's founding some 300 years ago.

Tale of two cities

The museum will be the first independent institution west of St. Petersburg to bear the name of the Hermitage. Set within the Amstelhof, a hulking 300-year-old former nursing home, the institution will hold exhibitions from the collections of the Hermitage. Spaces for performances, study, and lectures will focus on Russia's artistic heritage.

"The Dutch public are hungry to see more about collections from Russia," Mr. Veen says.

The ties are profound: Czar Peter the Great visited Amsterdam in 1697 seeking inspiration for his new city, which he founded in 1703. Dutch entrepreneurs set up shop in St. Petersburg after its founding and stayed there until revolution exploded in 1917. Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna, born in St. Petersburg in 1795, became queen of the Netherlands through marriage.

The Hermitage has long collected works from Dutch Masters. Its collection includes the largest holding of paintings by Rembrandt Van Rijn outside the Netherlands.

Hermitage embraces the world

That common history helped draw the Hermitage to Amsterdam in the years following perestroika, or reform. Under director Mikhail Piotrovsky, the Hermitage expanded its presence abroad through collaborations and exhibits, and looked into the possibility of establishing satellites in the West.

"We have established relationships with many museums throughout the world. We've been all around the world, except in Antarctica," says Vladimir Matveev, director of exhibitions and development at the Hermitage.