New European museums and permanent displays

Editorial Staff

Hermitage Amsterdam
On June 19 Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and President Dimitri Medevev of Russia are scheduled to preside over the opening ceremonies for the ambitiously expanded Hermitage Amsterdam. The museum, housed in the Amstelhof, built between 1681 and 1683 as a charitable home for the elderly, will reopen to the public on June 20. A satellite of the Russian State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Hermitage Amsterdam is independently managed by the Stichting Hermitage aan de Amstel, and, under an agreement with the Russian government, presents exhibitions featuring works from the flagship institution’s permanent collection. Architect Hans van Heeswijk, interior and exhibition designers Merkx and Girod, and landscape architect Michael van Gessel have sensitively transformed the Amstelhof and its grounds into a state-of-the-art exhibition facility.

The reopened museum’s inaugural exhibition, At the Russian Court, includes more than eighteen hundred objects: paintings, porcelain, jewelry, costumes, and furniture, including the Romanov throne and the last czarina’s grand piano. With installations inspired by the Nicholas Hall and Saint George’s Hall of the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, the show examines nineteenth-century Russian state ceremony in one of the museum’s exhibition wings and czarist entertaining-dinners, balls, and parties-in the other.

Two permanent displays explore the museum’s inception. One, Russia and the Hermitage: Encounters, pays tribute to the long history of Russian-Dutch cultural exchange, from the late seventeenth-century friendship between Peter the Great and the Amsterdam diplomat and burgomaster Nicolaes Witsen to the collaboration, begun in 1991, that resulted in the creation of Hermitage Amsterdam. The other display, in three rooms that include the ancient kitchens, preserves traces of the building’s 350 years of care for the elderly.
At the Russian Court · Hermitage Amsterdam · June 20 to January 31, 2010 ·

Next: Athens

The new Acropolis Museum
After five years of construction, the much anticipated new Acropolis Museum, designed by Bernard Tschumi in collaboration with the local Greek architect Michalis Photiadis, is also scheduled to open on June 20. Although the museum will not have the Elgin (Parthenon) Marbles, as the Greeks had hoped, it will hold four thousand antiquities in a gleaming modern facility almost ten times the size of the old museum and located only about three hundred yards from the Acropolis.

Acropolis Museum, Athens · opens June 20 ·

Next: Berlin

Neues Museum
The Neues Museum (New Museum), on Berlin’s renowned Museum Island, was originally designed by Friedrich August Stüler and constructed between 1841 and 1855. Severely damaged in World War II, it has now been rebuilt by the British architect David Chipperfield in collaboration with the conservation architect Julian Harrap. Its long-awaited reopening is scheduled for October, although the finished restoration (which came in at a remarkable €30 million un­­­­­­der budget) was opened for viewing for three days in March. The collections of the Egyptian Museum (Ägyptisches Museum), including the famed bust of Nefertiti, and the Museum for Prehistory and Early History (Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte), which covers Europe and the Ancient Near East from their beginnings through the Middle Ages, are currently being reinstalled. If the building’s preliminary opening in March inspired long lines and emotion, its reinauguration as a functioning museum surely salves a cultural wound that has festered for well over half a century.

Neues Museum, Museum Island, Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin · opening October 2009 ·

Next: London

New galleries at the British Museum
The British Museum has opened two important new permanent galleries. The Paul and Jill Ruddock Gallery of Medieval Europe presents a display of the museum’s staggering collection of medieval treasures dating from 1050 to 1500, looking at both sacred and profane masterpieces as windows into the culture that created them. The Royal Gold Cup, commissioned by Jean, duc de Berry between about 1370 and 1380, and the Lewis Chessmen of about 1150 to 1200, for example, can be admired both as exquisite objects and as material documents that hint at the courtly pursuits and protocols of the sophisticated society in which they originated. Similarly, a tiled pavement from Byland Abbey in North Yorkshire speaks as much to the spiritual fervor of its makers as to their technical skills and aesthetics. The juxtaposition of Byzantine and Western religious images evidences the convergences and differences in the underlying theologies of these two societies, while a special section devoted to the Byzantine Empire highlights its importance as a hub of trade and culture.

A second important new gallery, part of a world-class center for the study of ceramics, showcases 1,752 pieces of Chinese porcelain from the Song, Ming, Yuan, and Qing dynasties, drawn from the superlative collection assembled by Sir Percival David.

The core of the David Collection began with porcelain sold off from China’s Imperial City in 1927. It gained acclaim after its first public display at London’s Dorchester Hotel in 1931 and in 1950, administered by the foundation named after its creator, passed into the hands of the University of London. Sadly, the foundation ran into financial difficulties in late 2007. Its long-term loan to the British Museum, facilitated through a generous donation by Sir Joseph Hotung, assures that this important collection will remain accessible to experts and amateurs alike.

British Museum, London ·

New galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum
This year London’s Victoria and Albert Museum completes its most ambitious redesign projects since it launched the new British Galleries in 2001. The climax will be the opening in November of the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, occupying ten rooms in an entire wing of the museum. Leading up to this, on September 18 portions of the new Ceramics Galleries will open. Scheduled for completion in 2010, the galleries represent the first reinstallation of the museum’s enormous ceramics collection in more than a century. In addition to highlighting links between ceramic traditions around the world from ancient times on, a new emphasis has been placed on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and includes a partial reconstruction of the studio of Dame Lucie Rie. A gallery devoted to the techniques of ceramic production will allow visitors to try their hands at some of them. One gallery will rotate displays, starting with “Objects of Luxury,” devoted to French eighteenth-century pieces, especially those from Sèvres.

Meanwhile, this month the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Galleries will open to display the magnificent gold, silver, micromosaics, and pietre dure boxes formerly on view at Somerset House. In March the museum opened its new Theatre and Performance Galleries. April witnessed the debut of the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Gallery, where approximately fifty pieces of Buddhist sculpture from India, Sri Lanka, the Himalayas, Burma (Myanmar), Java, Thailand, China, and Japan, and dating from between 200 and 1850, elucidate the diverse spiritual and artistic interpretations of the Buddha. It is the first Buddhist sculpture gallery in the United Kingdom.

Victoria and Albert Museum, London ·

Pitt Rivers Museum
The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford reopened on May 1 after being closed for nearly a year for refurbishment. Those enamored of the quirky eccentric charms of this ethnographic museum built upon the 1884 bequest of eighteen thousand objects from General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers will be delighted that the 1960s display at the museum’s entrance has been dismantled so that the original cases can be returned to their old places. Eight new displays have also been added and allow many previously unseen objects to be on view. As always, this eclectic array of artifacts-including a Tahitian mourner’s costume collected during Captain Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific Islands in 1773 and 1774; Inuit fur parkas; masks from Africa, Melanesia, and North America, as well as an early group used in Japanese Noh theater performances; and pottery, tools, weapons, boats, charms, and amulets from around the world-remain crammed into cases with small labels, many written by the museum’s first curator, and grouped by type rather than place of origin.

A grant won through the Heritage Lottery Fund as well as gifts from other donors made the refurbishment possible. The upstairs gallery will reopen next year.
Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford ·

Next: Prague

Baroque decorative arts at Schwarzenberg Palace
Last year the National Gallery in Prague placed 160 sculptures and 280 paintings created in Czech lands between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries on permanent display in the newly reopened Schwarzenberg Palace. This past February the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague enriched this display with an independent installation at the palace devoted to the decorative arts of Central Europe during these same periods. Installed in the newly restored vaulted rooms of the basement, this new permanent exhibition contains more than four hundred objects from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, divided into furniture, tablewares, graphic arts, and liturgical objects.

The Schwarzenberg Palace, at Castle Square near Prague Castle, was built for Jan, count of Lobkowicz, and completed in 1567 by Agostino Galli. It distinctively melds Italianate influences with Czech traditions, notably with its striking black-and-white sgraffito exterior. Although the palace has been used as a museum since 1910-first by the National Technical Museum and later the Military History Museum-the building underwent a major reconstruction after the National Gallery acquired it in 2002 and is well worth visiting for its own merits.
Baroque Masterpieces from the Collections of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague · Schwarzenberg Palace, Prague ·

Next: Venice

Palazzo Grimani
More than a quarter-century after its acquisition by the Italian government, Palazzo Grimani is at long last open to the public. The renovation of this jewel of Venetian Renaissance architecture, which includes state-of-the-art innovations necessary to protect it from Venice’s capricious canals, as well as a painstaking restoration of its original surfaces, took an astonishing twenty-seven years to complete.

The Venetian doge Antonio Grimani began construction of the original residence in the early sixteenth century. His brother, Vettore Grimani, the republic’s general prosecutor, and his son Giovanni Grimani, cardinal and patriarch of Aquileia, remodeled it between 1532 and 1569 with the help of some of the finest architects of the time. The overall structure is attributed to Michele Sanmicheli; the graceful spiral staircase, to Andrea Palladio. Giovanni Antonio Rusconi completed the palace in 1575. Its polychrome marble floors and marble architectural elements frame richly ornamented frescoes and stuccowork by Francesco Salviati, Federico Zuccaro, Camillo Mantovano di Cappelli, and Giovanni da Udine.

The palace is especially noted for its courtyard (unique in Venice) and tribuna (gallery), created as a showplace for the Grimani family’s extensive collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. Paintings by Venetian masters such as Titian, Jacopo Bassano, and Jacopo Tin­toretto as well as by Hieronymus Bosch now adorn the palace’s walls in tribute to the arts patronage of its owners.

Palazzo Grimani, Venice ·

Next: Belfast and Bagdad

The current redevelopment and expansion of the Ulster Museum in Belfast (with notable holdings of Irish furniture, porcelain, silver, and glass), which anticipates reopening in late October; and, even more so, the February 2009 reopening of the Iraq National Museum, with a large portion of the objects reclaimed after its recent looting, poignantly speak to the importance of such cultural institutions and the objects they display.

Ulster Museum, Belfast · scheduled to open late Oc­­to­­­ber ·

Iraq National Museum, Bagdad ·

Images from above: Panorama of Saint Petersburg by Charles Claude Bachelier, c. 1850. Hermitage Amsterdam; New Acropolis Museum, Athens, designed by Bernard Tschumi in collaboration with Michalis Photiadis. Photograph by Nikos Daniilidis; West facade of the Neues Museum, Berlin, as recently rebuilt by David Chipperfield in collaboration with Julian Harrap. © Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz/David Chipperfield Architects, photograph by Ute Zscharnt; Oval writing box and cover, Jiangxi Province, 1426-1435. British Museum, Percival David Collection; Reliquary casket of Saint Thomas Becket, Limoges, France, c. 1180-1190. Victoria and Albert Museum. © V and A Images; Interior of the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, as recently restored. Photograph by courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum; View in the Schwarzenberg Palace, Prague; Interior of the Palazzo Grimani, Venice.