The display is spread across various spaces within the General Staff building and spans eleven rooms. The main part of the exhibition is presented in the attic above the vaults of the famous arch of the General Staff. This unusual, in some way mystical place, where the original wooden structures and 19th-century skylights have survived, was previously inaccessible to visitors. The opportunity to see it will be a long-awaited gift to the museum’s guests.
The display invites people to find out about the history of the General Staff building, to view rare photographs of the mammoth restoration process that turned a historical monument into a modern-day museum, and to recall the most interesting exhibitions that have been held here over the last two decades. The exhibition also features documents from the Hermitage’s archives, old exhibition posters, and archaeological finds dating from the 18th–20th centuries that were made on the site during the restoration work.
Specially for the exhibition, the studio ARKI – Kinetic Architecture is presenting the media installation Bird of the Future, a metaphor for the Hermitage’s museum activities in the General Staff building over the years. The shape of the art object was inspired by the layout of the building that resembles on the one hand the silhouette of some magical bird and on the other the lines of an ultramodern supersonic airliner.
The General Staff building is one of Saint Petersburg’s outstanding architectural monuments, constructed in the 1820s and ’30s to Carlo Rossi’s design. The magnificent Classical edifice erected opposite the imperial residence on Palace Square invested that space with a special status as the administrative centre of the capital. The western wing of the building housed the military administration – the General Staff. The eastern wing was allotted to civilian ministries of the Russian Empire: the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Over its long history, the purpose and occupants of the building changed repeatedly, which eventually, by the late 1980s, left it in a sadly neglected state. In 1988, a decision of the Leningrad City Executive Committee transferred the eastern wing of the General Staff building to the State Hermitage. In 1999, the museum was accorded the right of day-to-day management of the building, after which the first temporary exhibition was opened there, one devoted to the French artists of the Nabis group, Pierre Bonnard and Maurice Denis. That same year, the first permanent display – “Realms of the Eagle. The Art of Empire” began working, and it is still functioning in the General Staff building to this day.
The year 2008 saw the start of the large-scale restoration of the building and its adaptation to museum needs following the project devised by the Studio 44 architectural studio, but even during the construction work a large number of exhibitions nonetheless took place, including those of the artists Vadim Voinov (“The State Hermitage under a Full Moon”, 2005–06), Cy Twombly (2003) and George Segal (2002).
In 2014, in time for the Hermitage’s 250th anniversary, the permanent displays of the General Staff building were formally opened. In the course of the work, rooms that still retained their original décor were restored. The displays entitled “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Empire” and “The Ministry of Finance of the Russian Empire” are inseparable connected with the rooms in which they are located. The Museum of the Russian Imperial Guards exists in the General Staff building in what is already its third incarnation, and it fits splendidly, in terms of both aesthetics and sense, in the central enfilade of the building’s grandest floor with windows facing the main imperial residence.
In the fourth storey of the General Staff building, the original historical interiors have not survived, but thanks to the favourable position, the system of lighting from above and the arrangement of space in the halls and smaller rooms, it provides a worthy setting in which to present masterpieces of the Hermitage collection. The Sergei Shchukin and Morozov Brothers Memorial Gallery was opened there, with the famed “top floor of the Winter Palace” being moved across to it.
The completely modern space of the new Great Enfilade at second-storey level is used for temporary exhibitions that have included “Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. Not Everyone will be Taken into the Future” (2018), “Steve McCurry. Unguarded Moment” (2015), “Jan Fabre: Knight of Despair/Warrior of Beauty” (2016–17), and the “Manifesta 10” biennale of contemporary art (2014).
The General Staff building has become a place were the Hermitage can install any exhibitions or projects with maximum convenience. It has both “strata” of 19th-century history – the interiors of Rossi’s Classical enfilades – and unique halls for the display of contemporary art. The building’s new architectural forms, hidden behind its historical façades, have turned it into a hybrid, multifaced living organism. Here the architecture immerses the visitor in Russia’s history and also helps to shape the image of the future. The new Great Enfilade of the General Staff building is an example of how the past continues in the future.
The Public Forum occupies the ground floor of the General Staff building. The space is used for exhibition activities and events of public significance, among which are the International Cultural Forum, International Economic Forum, International Legal Forum, International Dyslexia Awareness Week and many others. Here too the model of the General Staff building with multimedia elements has been installed, enabling visitors to acquaint themselves at the very outset with the architecture of the edifice and key events in its history.
Besides the display in the attic of the General Staff building, visitors will see in the museum halls a series of photographs that show the state of the interiors before restoration. By comparing what appears in the archive photographs with the how they look today, people will be able to appreciate the scale of the changes themselves.
Materials used in the creation of the exhibition were provided by the Russian State Historical Archive, the Research Museum of the Russian Academy of Arts, the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture, the Central State Archive of Cinematic, Photographic and Phonographic Documents of Saint Petersburg and the Archive of the State Hermitage, as well as the design drawings for architectural and construction work.
A scholarly publication has been prepared for the exhibition in the form of an anthology of exhibitions and events in the General Staff building over the past 20 years (State Hermitage publishing house, 2020). Foreword by Mikhail Piotrovsky. Compiled by Yekaterina Savishchenko. An electronic version will be included in the exhibition.
The exhibition curators are Olga Anatolyevna Korotkova, Head of the History of the General Staff Building sector, and Yekaterina Sergeyevna Savishchenko, junior researcher in the same sector.
Visits to the exhibition are possible only as part of a guided tour group with time slots. Electronic tickets will be available for purchase in the near future from the website tickets.hermitagemuseum.org. Watch for updates on the official Hermitage website.