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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.

Not everybody is happy with museum multinationals. Leading figures in the Paris art world have raged against the Middle Eastern Louvre as a sign of crass commercialism undermining French cultural values.

“The commercial exploitation of masterpieces of our national heritage, which the Republic should be preserving for future generations, can only be shocking on a moral level,” a group of professors and curators wrote in Le Monde when the Louvre’s Abu Dhabi plans were announced in 2006. The Russians, on the other hand, see the Amsterdam branch as an opportunity to promote their nation’s culture. The new site beside the Amstel River is holding concerts with Cossack choirs; showing open-air movies based on the works of Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky; and serving vodka-infused chocolate cake in the museum cafe.

Taking up almost a whole city block, the old Amstelhof nursing home has a sober brick facade and a cool minimalist interior that contrasts with the Czarist opulence on display inside.

One of the central halls of the new museum evokes a St. Petersburg ball, complete with pearl-encrusted silk gowns and dashing hussars’ tunics. In another wing, a more formal display recreates a Winter Palace audience with the Czar, dominated by a great golden throne of the Romanov dynasty.

The exhibition is a celebration of Czarist grandeur. There’s little mention of the dark side of the period, with its uprisings, pogroms and famines. The shoes and parasols of aristocratic ladies receive more space than the Napoleonic Wars or emancipation of the serfs.

Ignoring politics, the show focuses on the private and public lives of the Romanovs and their entourage. Objects range from the miniature rifles of the young Nicholas II to Faberge jewelry, mustachioed military portraits and the oriental costumes used in the court’s Chinese masquerades.

The driving force behind the Amsterdam Hermitage is Ernst Veen, who began organizing exchanges between the Russian museum and Amsterdam artistic institutions two decades ago and helped raise funds to support the Hermitage during the post-Soviet economic chaos in the 1990s.

Veen’s friendship with Piotrovsky, together with the cities’ historical ties, made Amsterdam the natural choice when the Hermitage began looking for a foreign partner.

“Peter the great would be happy with this,” Piotrovsky said at the opening.

The exhibition “At the Russian Court” runs at the Amsterdam Hermitage until Jan. 31, 2009.