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St. Petersburg takes on Amsterdam

As the world's premier museums go global, the Hermitage opens a branch in The Netherlands.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev and Hermitage St. Petersburg director Mikhail Piotrovsky (right) tour the "At the Russian Court" exhibition after the opening ceremony of the Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam, June 19, 2009. (Toussaint Kluiters/United Photos/Reuters)

AMSTERDAM — Over 300 years ago, Czar Peter the Great returned home with an armful of Dutch old masters that would lay the foundation of one of the world’s greatest art collections. Now the Russians are returning the favor.

St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage museum has just opened a branch in Amsterdam, creating a cultural sensation in the city where Czar Peter traveled incognito in the 17th century to observe Western ways.

The Hermitage Amsterdam offers the Russian museum a window to the West in a riverside nursing home that was newly built when Peter was in town. Converted at the cost of 40 million euros into a major new artistic attraction, it will present rotating exhibitions from the St. Petersburg treasure trove. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev travelled to Amsterdam in June for the grand opening, joining Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, who is herself a descendant of Peter the Great.

That opening was sorely welcome in a city that has two of its great art collections — the Rembrandt-packed Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk modern art gallery — undergoing lengthy and disruptive refurbishing.

The Amsterdam offshoot is a showcase for the St. Petersburg museum to advertise its spectacular collection of over 3 million art works in Western Europe. “It’s part of a global strategy of the Hermitage to make our collections available in the world,” declared Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Russian museum.

The original Hermitage receives 1 euro for every visitor paying the 15-euro entry price into its Amsterdam satellite.

Entitled “At the Russian Court,” the opening exhibition brings an array of 1,800 artifacts from the lives of Russia’s privileged 19th-century elite to Western audiences for the first time. The show drew over 100,000 visitors its first month, said press officer Pom Verhoeff.

Those crowds could be just a taste of the hordes expected in the spring, when Amsterdam will display a sampling of the Hermitage’s superlative collection of works by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Relics from the age of Alexander the Great will form the third exhibition, in the autumn of 2010.

This artistic outreach project is the latest step in an emerging trend toward globalization in the museum world. The Louvre is due to open a spectacular satellite in Abu Dhabi by 2012 and its Parisian neighbor the Centre Pompidou is holding talks with Chinese authorities on a Shanghai branch.

The idea was pioneered by the Guggenheim Foundation, which from its base in New York has set up annexes in Venice, Berlin and Bilbao. It has major new branches in Abu Dhabi and Guadalajara in the pipeline. In 2011, the Hermitage and the Guggenheim are planning a major new museum in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, following a temporary joint-venture in Las Vegas.