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Culture : Hermitage Sinking Under Lax Security : Russia's famous art museum is pillaged by vandals and workers alike and undermined by riverbank soil.

January 25, 1994|MATT BIVENS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — One of the world's greatest museums was nearly destroyed a few months ago by a forgotten cup of tea.

A worker in the fabric section of the Hermitage's Russian History Department had plugged in an electric tea kettle but then forgot about it. The water boiled away, the kettle burned up, the curtains caught fire, and suddenly the Hermitage--home of Rembrandt and Rodin, Matisse and Manet, Scythian gold and Egyptian sarcophagi--was in mortal danger.

The alarm and sprinkler system wasn't yet fully installed--it still isn't--so no warning sounded as flames crept closer to a dress owned by Czarina Catherine the Great. Smoke pouring from the window finally alerted a passerby; luckily, he was a former museum security officer and knew whom to call. Museum firefighters quickly put out the blaze.

The half-finished sprinkler system did eventually work, but for no good. It kicked on without cause one night, pouring more than 100 tons of water into the newly restored Hermitage Theater.

Both events underline what many specialists here call a disgracefully lax security system for the Hermitage's wondrous 3-million-piece art collection.

Perhaps just as alarming about the two mishaps is how the museum's leadership reacted.

For Alexander Baturin, head of security at the Hermitage, the fire is proof that all is working wonderfully. Baturin proudly states that "one of our guys" noticed the smoke and called it in smartly.

Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage, has a different take. He accuses the press of sensationalizing the fire. Never mind that the incident has been mentioned in print just once in Russia, at the bottom of a 39-paragraph story in the St. Petersburg Bulletin.

As for the sprinkler malfunction, well, Piotrovsky explains, that's Finland's fault. The sprinkler system is Finnish-made and Finnish-installed, he says, "so this has been a lesson to us, a reminder that the West brings us as much bad as good."

Others concerned about security at the Hermitage say Piotrovsky shoulders much of the blame himself. The testimony of current and former museum workers, police officers and cultural officials suggests that--despite its proud history--the Hermitage is no longer capable of caring for its treasures.

*

The Hermitage is a complex of stately buildings strung along the banks of the Neva River. At its core is the czar's 535-room Winter Palace. In summer, about 30,000 people a day wander down its miles of halls to view one of the world's finest collections of Western painting.

The museum was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, who collected European art for her "hermitage"--a cozy, private room closed off from the rest of the palace. Later the Bolsheviks swelled the museum's assets by nationalizing hundreds of private collections after the 1917 Revolution.

Famous for its Rembrandts, the museum also boasts at least 25 major works by Henri Matisse and 30 by Pablo Picasso. Many of those works hang in direct sunlight, fading. Although in czarist days sunlight was filtered with colored paper glued onto the Hermitage's windowpanes, not even that primitive precaution is taken today.

The museum also lacks air conditioning, and in summer the upper-story windows are thrown open. Paintings are exposed to cool breezes thick with humidity from the bordering Neva River and car exhaust from nearby Nevsky Prospect.

Basements are undermined by flooding and long-forgotten tunnels and drainage systems, some 250 years old.

"Do you feel how damp this wall is?" asked engineer Tatyana Yakusheva during a tour of the subterranean rooms and corridors. "Think about it: This humidity creeps upward along this wall to the pictures above. Meanwhile, this wetness--these stalactites, pools of water, this damp air--it's eating away the foundations."

The Hermitage is actually sinking, at a rate of a half-centimeter a year, into ground that grows more sodden with the passing of each season.

The Finnish government has promised to help with $100,000, while the Hermitage has put up $120,000 for Yakusheva to solve the water problems. Moreover, the Dutch government, in an agreement brokered by UNESCO, has pledged the Hermitage $1.2 million over the next 10 years for modernization and repairs.

"But although that sounds generous and impressive, most of that money is just a promise for now," Yakusheva said. "This is a project that can't wait for paperwork."

Then there is that security problem.

Guards stationed in the display halls are almost all elderly women; the salary is too low to attract anyone else. Some doze at their posts while vandals pry crystal and metal details off the luxurious furniture.

In October 1992, when two 18th-Century crystal flagons worth $18,000 each were stolen from a display cabinet, it was a visitor to the museum--not an employee--who first noticed. Last summer, when auditors from the Ministry of Culture removed a painting from the wall, intentionally tripping the alarm, no one arrived to check on it for eight minutes.

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