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The famed late 18th-century restoration of the Petrossian Palace was a revolutionary new approach to preservation of ancient treasures.
But in St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, where treasures from the Russian empire were meticulously reassembled following the petrification of the city, the engineers undertaking the ambitious project tended to opt for more gentile options – namely, making the situation more comfortable for museum visitors.
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Hermitage’s engineers decided to fill gaps left behind by cataclysmic events of history, and not just during the second world war.
The 18th-century Russian historian Peter Shchebagyev wrote that the Petrossian Palace on the St Petersburg waterfront – now known as Hermitage – was one of the most important and enduring examples of artificial construction in history. A number of natural events had created the gap that enabled its construction.
The Hermitage’s engineers decided that it could be supplemented with a Soviet-style sprinkler system, which helped to combat draughts and dried out the spaces between the large masonry pillars of the courtyard.
After building all the additions, including sprinkler systems, the designers decided that areas of the building that had been closed off and withstood the cataclysmic effects of the steam explosions which turned the palace to dust in 1837 were possible spaces for guests. By adding more chairs and even reading rooms, the architects were able to accommodate hundreds of visitors while preserving the integrity of the building.
Hermitage’s director, Kirill Serebrennikov, described the idea as “the idea of a theatre organ … The visitors are the orchestra, the musicians. But the people who actually perform the music are the people who run the hotel in the courtyard, the gift shop and the cafeteria.”
The Hermitage museum has said the idea was an influential one that is still being followed today. The museum director said the same project had been “recently implemented in the Dacha, in the Pavilion of Customs in Tverskaya” and added that in future the museum would be opening a few more rooms “where people can sit and have a cup of tea, read a book or a magazine, or listen to classical music”.
Hermitage’s director called the project a “triumph of preservation and of the vision of the century”.