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The invisible Hermitage. What’s inside the storage rooms of the country’s main Museum

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Storing is not about concealing, it’s about preserving. But even museum storage has space for a revolution – which was undertaken by the Hermitage workers in Staraya Derevnya storage funds. The handover of art pieces from Zimniy’s storage rooms to the funds located in the city’s north is actively underway. Because there – in a modern and well-equipped building – is where you can preserve things in a special way. In the open!

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Pavel Nikiforov, reporter: “What do we see when we think of storage rooms at museums? Museums like the Hermitage? Dusty, dark basements with ceiling-high shelves full of art pieces concealed from the public’s eye, smell of oldness and keepers in blue coats. But it’s a wrong perception, completely wrong. And to show what it really is like – we’re going down into the Hermitage’s storage rooms”.

Keeper of the textiles fund, Yulia Plotnikova, walks down one of the service corridors of the Zimniy Palace, knowing exactly where the Emperor’s clothes are kept, where Maria Fedorovna’s hats are stored and where the shoes are. No dust, no darkness, no blue coats. And here are lady shoes from the last quarter of the 18th century, Ekaterina’s times. And what a pair it is!

Yulia Plotnikova, keeper of the textiles fund at the State Hermitage: “The model has no back, and we also see 18-century-style extra soles – attached with three nails. She never put these on for walks in the city, only in the private park or along her residency”.

These 18-century shoes tell us a lot – about those times, technologies and even preferences of Ekaterina II. And that’s the essence of storing things – not conceal it from the public’s eye, but protecting the organic textile from ultraviolet and insects. If these rare shoes were on display at the Hermitage, those would not have lasted until our days. Just like these hats which give us a clear picture of what position the pre-revolution St. Petersburg occupied within the world fashion.

Yulia Plotnikova, keeper of the textiles fund at the State Hermitage: “Here, you can see who owned it – there’s a letter T written here. Meaning it belonged to Tatyana Nikolayevna. But Olga, Anastasiya and Maria wore the same type of hats. European level of quality. It was Europe!”

Storing is not about concealing, it’s about preserving. But even museum storage has space for a revolution – which was undertaken by the Hermitage workers in Staraya Derevnya storage funds. The handover of art pieces from Zimniy’s storage rooms to the funds located in the city’s north is actively underway. Because there – in a modern and well-equipped building – is where you can preserve things in a special way. In the open!

And here’s the example of open storage – when it’s not the art pieces which are placed under glass or behind a fence. But the visitors are separated from the items with a glass wall. Not only does this flip the common perception of an exhibition, but also makes the storage rooms accessible for spectators.

Nina Tarasova, keeper of costumes collection of the State Hermitage: I like the fact that you mentioned the openness of our storage. To be honest, sometimes when I walk down these corridors, I feel that it’s not me looking at the costumes, it’s the costumes looking at me. And that there are people wearing those, sharing their opinions. Ask questions and give answers. Wonderful feeling”.

And you would not have been able to feel that without such open storage. Moreover, we would’ve never got to see Peter the Great’s costumes with our own eyes – if it wasn’t for such unique storage method. It’s impossible to preserve such clothing in usual museum halls for three hundred years. But these garments tell us much more about Peter than thousands of text book and dissertation pages. For instance, that he wasn’t as modest as we’ve been led to believe.

Only 30% of the Hermitage’s three million items are actually on display. So to speak, more than 2 million of those are tucked away in storage rooms and these funds. 70% of the collection has not been on display. Well, at least until now. And here is a concrete example. The tent of Emir of Bukhara, which was presented to Alexander III in 1893. 125 years later, it was assembled and shown to the spectators for the first time! There was no space in the Hermitage, while putting it together inside the storage rooms was impossible.

Svetlana Adaksina, Chief Keeper at the State Hermitage: “It’s all one tent. You can call it an architectural textile or textile architecture, whatever you want. Because it’s an entire textile hut, and we don’t know of any other like that”

So, not only this tent was assembled for the first time – which took a whole year and the efforts of an entire department, according to the workers – but it also has no equal in the world. And it could’ve easily escaped our eyes completely. That’s why, as we said in the beginning of this report, in the case of our Hermitage, storage is not about darkness and filled shelves. It’s something entirely different.

  • Is that a novelty, introduced by the Hermitage – to store stuff and let people see it, or is it a precedent for the whole world?

Svetlana Adaksina, Chief Keeper at the State Hermitage: “No, I’ve not heard of such methods anywhere – that the stored funds are on display. We have altered the perception of a storage fund”

This is not an attempt to distinguish the Hermitage among other museums. It’s an attempt to explain what the modern-day storage should be like. An attempt to explain that you can see the other 2 million items which are not on general display. Not at once, but you can. And when we hear that only 30% of items are displayed, it does not mean that the other 70% is concealed. Its stored. And openly stored too.

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