Nick Hoffman,

Nick Hoffman,

A weeklong electronic journal.
Sept. 1 1998 3:30 AM

Nick Hoffman,

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26000_26253_1winterpalace
26000_26255_2wintercanal

     The director's office in the Hermitage is relatively quiet, despite seven members of our advisory board trading rhetorical flourishes and counterflourishes. Normally the cavernous room is invaded by people through three doors--Mikhail Piotrovski simultaneously holding four meetings in various corners, pacing between them and his bank of phones. This being Russia, there are eight separate phones rather than eight lines. We are locked away for most of the day discussing plans for a new wing of the museum. Right across from the Winter Palace is the former imperial Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Finance, Mines, and Salt, which the imploding Russian military has given to the museum. We get down to business without much talk of the outside world; President Clinton has arrived in Moscow, but no Russian expects anything from a summit. Internal power struggles in Moscow are more important, though at this point it would be hard to find anyone with any expectations to be dashed. More seriously, we defer any discussion of the economic situation. The architectural manager of the project and I describe the ultimate goal of a new cultural and commercial complex, which would allow the museum to display more of its collections than the current 5 percent. It's a long-term project and, as Dr. Piotrovski points out, the Hermitage has seen revolutions, civil war, and three evacuations--the first in retreat from Napoleon in 1812. Even in 1917 the only areas to be damaged were the wine cellars under our feet. The Winter Palace and the collections were untouched, but the canal nearby ran red with the world's best vintages for two days. Though four years ago the director announced to the world that the basements held stunning trophy art from Berlin, today he's not saying whether there are any bottles left beneath us. Though we make good progress on curatorial and commercial aspects of the new wing, our conversation is held up at the end of the day by a discussion of the complex's name. This gives J. Carter Brown, former director of the National Gallery in Washington, an opportunity to go on many of his trademark impresario riffs. He suggests that the plodding "General Staff Building" be dubbed instead "Hermitage II," "Hermitage: South," or "Winged Victory" (a pun on the victory arch that is part of the building). The "Arch Building" is rejected, because even in Russia it sounds like a McDonald's marketing ploy. In the end Michel Laclotte, former director of the Grand Louvre, maintains a tactful silence when we decide on the "Greater Hermitage," which indeed would overtake the new Louvre in size. As with many of our exhibition names, the title doesn't work in Russian. Earlier this year a great fuss was created when the "Roof Over Rembrandt" project had to be renamed after it was pointed out that the translation meant "mafia protection money for Rembrandt" to most Russians. The day ends with a six course dinner in the empty rooms of the new wing. The foreign minister lived here in the 1820s, and his flat includes a ballroom and private chapel. Brown continues his multilingual punning while I foolishly try to speak German to the guest on my left, Russian to the guest on my right, and end up speaking gobbledygook. I am getting along fine until I notice the Russian pulling out a much used wooden toothpick from a grease stained wallet and using it between courses before tucking it back in the wallet. My horrified look gives me away, and he decides to give me the silent treatment.

Nick Hoffman is assistant to the director for economic affairs at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.