A view of the Hermitage Amsterdam in 2018 with a work by Bartholomeus van der Helst (photo by Hans Splinter via Flickr)

AMSTERDAM — Over the past few years, the Hermitage Amsterdam, a former outpost of Russia’s Hermitage Museum, has been confronted with one worst-case scenario after another. First, a global pandemic forced its second jubilee exhibition on the Romanov family’s jewelry collections to a premature close. Unable to receive visitors, the museum — a private enterprise ineligible for government support — had no choice but to send home a sizable chunk of its close-knit team, some of whom had been with the organization since 2009. 

Then, after a desperate but ultimately successful fundraising campaign, the country to which the Hermitage Amsterdam devoted the vast majority of its exhibitions invaded Ukraine on the pretense that there were Nazis living there, among other unfounded claims. Another long-awaited show, Russian Avant-Garde: Revolution in the Arts, closed down sooner than intended. As Russia’s global standing plummeted to an all-time low, the museum denounced Putin’s government and formally severed ties with its namesake and partner, the State Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg.

“For a long time the Hermitage Amsterdam has distanced itself from political developments in Putin’s Russia,” the museum explained in a press release on March 3. “Russia’s recent attack on Ukraine makes keeping this distance no longer tenable. War destroys everything.”

The facade of the Hermitage Amsterdam (photo Tim Brinkhof/Hyperallergic)

For the museum’s employees, this was not an easy decision to make. “It was a very emotional moment for my co-workers,” Arnoud Bijl, an editor of curatorial texts at the museum and Dutch-Russian translator who lost his job during the pandemic, told Hyperallergic. “Not necessarily because they were concerned about the future of their careers, but because the museum had been their life’s work. It wasn’t just a job to them; they were doing something they thought was meaningful and helped them get out of bed in the morning.”

When war broke out in Ukraine, working relations between Russia and the Hermitage Amsterdam were called into question. According to Bijl, the Amsterdam Museum, a different institution located in the Dutch capital, went as far as to pause a collaboration with the Hermitage Amsterdam because its leadership felt those relations were unclear. 

In reality, the Hermitage Amsterdam has always been transparent about its foreign connection. Judicially, says Bijl, the museum was 100% Dutch and 0% Russian. It had two main agreements with the State Hermitage. For every visitor at the Hermitage Amsterdam, the Russian museum would receive 1 euro. In return, the Hermitage Amsterdam would be given priority over other museums in the supply of artwork, allowing Dutch curators to consistently plan new exhibitions with materials loaned directly from Saint Petersburg. 

“This was not a binding contract,” Bijl stressed. “It could be rescinded any time.” He also reiterated something the Hermitage Amsterdam has stated many times before: The museum has never had a Russian sponsor, be that a government official or an oligarch. Instead, the museum got its money from Dutch sponsors like the bank ABN AMRO and Heineken.

At the same time, it is important to remember that the State Hermitage Museum is, as its name suggests, a state institution. Consequently, anyone dealing with the Russian museum must also — to an extent — deal with the Russian state itself. 

“However,” countered Bijl, “this does not mean we worked directly with the Kremlin. It did mean Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Russian Hermitage, did not have much wiggle room to approve of anything that would evidently displease Putin; he had to stay within the boundaries of the regime’s political color.”

Materials for the exhibit Jewels! arriving at the Hermitage Amsterdam from Saint Petersburg in August 2019 (photo Tim Brinkhof/Hyperallergic)

Although Piotrovsky could not dictate how Russian art was displayed once it arrived in Amsterdam, he still reserved the right to turn down concepts and proposals. According to Bijl, criticism leveled by Saint Petersburg usually focused on an exhibition’s presentation, not its messaging. “The Russian Hermitage sees itself as an academic, even scientific institution,” he explains, “instead of a place where people come to experience the art for themselves. The Russians also expect a level of familiarity with or interest in history that Dutch visitors simply will not have.” 

Russian state museums tend to be ceremonial and old-fashioned: places where you walk from one gallery to another, usually in complete silence save for the sound of your own footsteps. Dutch museums, by contrast, often incorporate interactive technology to make the subject matter more fun and engaging for people of all ages. Piotrovsky remained adamant in his desire to keep the Hermitage Amsterdam’s exhibitions “formal.” However, guidance from Saint Petersburg gradually loosened as the Dutch museum matured and its employees proved they could design shows that resonated with Dutch culture. In the aforementioned press release, the Hermitage Amsterdam stated the two institutions always managed to reach a satisfying compromise when differences of opinion arose between them, something Bijl agrees with. 

When hints of Putin propaganda managed to penetrate the Hermitage Amsterdam, they were not always immediately obvious. 

“Exhibitions at the Dutch museum concerning the Romanovs had a bit of a contemporary Russian perspective to them,” Bijl confessed. “The czars were depicted as friendlier, their empire more harmonious. Exhibitions on Catherine the Great hardly mentioned that a large portion of Russians lived in poverty during her time, and that only a small upper echelon was able to enjoy the splendor of her court.”

“The same goes for Peter’s cruelties,” Bijl continued. “We didn’t ignore these things completely in our exhibitions, but would have talked about them a lot more if we could have.”

After cutting ties with the Russian State Hermitage Museum, the Hermitage Amsterdam will shine a spotlight on art from the Netherlands, such as Johannes Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid” (1657–1658). (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Hermitage Amsterdam’s decision to sever its ties with the State Hermitage Museum may have come as a shock to the Dutch public, but not to the museum’s own employees, who had known for a long time that Putin’s increasingly aggressive behavior meant their days were numbered. “Will the museum be able to continue?” “How is this going to affect our exhibitions?” These questions surfaced more and more frequently during team meetings as the years went by.

Still, Bijl’s depiction of the Hermitage Amsterdam is different from what many expected. Far from a Russian satellite, the museum was raised from the ground up by Dutch curators passionate about aspects of Russian art, culture, and history that were worth saving. 

Bijl wishes there could have been a way for the organization to survive in its original form, but understands why this was impossible. After severing its ties with the State Hermitage Museum, the Hermitage Amsterdam reopened as Dutch Heritage Amsterdam. With support from other museums in the city, the institution will now shine a spotlight on art from the Netherlands rather than Russia. First up is an exhibition devoted solely to Johannes Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid (1657–1658), on loan from the Rijksmuseum.

Despite this change in branding, Bijl looks back at the past with a quiet dignity and even nostalgia: “The Hermitage Amsterdam was a fine museum,” he said. “We built it together, from scratch. It disappeared in a fraction of the time it took to create.”

Tim Brinkhof is a journalist and film critic based in Amsterdam. He studied early Netherlandish painting at NYU and has written for Esquire, High Times and History Today.