From inception in early 1999 to their launch in late 2000, the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House have taken just 18 months to become a reality. In that time, the organisers, led by Lord Rothschild and the executive director, Geraldine Norman, have had to turn their vision into reality, helped by an enthusiasm which recognised no barriers, even at those times when the rest of the team were convinced that a November opening was impossible.


Vigilius Eriksen, Equestrian Portrait of Catherine II, c.1762
Vigilius Eriksen, Equestrian Portrait of Catherine II, c.1762.
Oil on canvas. Detail

Seeking to recreate a sense of the majesty and magic of the Hermitage on the south bank of the Neva in a very small space on the north bank of the Thames, the interiors have been designed by Jasper Jacob to incorporate motifs from the original building - parquet þoors based on the Throne Room of the Winter Palace and gallery furniture derived from the magnificent ensembles dotted around the galleries in St Petersburg. Our first exhibition presents the life and collections of the presiding spirit of the Hermitage, Catherine the Great, whose significance for the museum, St Petersburg and indeed Russia as a whole is difficult to overestimate. Her purchases and commissions of everything from snuffboxes to paintings - including many pieces by English artists (Reynolds, Wright of Derby) and craftsmen (Wedgwood) - still largely define the museum today. Over the coming years the Hermitage Rooms will present a taste of the museum's vast collections and will contribute to scholarly research and exchange between curators and of course to marketing and fundraising for the Hermitage.

The process of cultural exchange has already begun, although in a slightly different sense. No such international project is without its misunderstandings, but there is often a tendency to put down any apparent strangeness in Russian procedure to mere inefficiency. Often, however, the root lies simply in different accepted practices, to Russian laws and insurance, export and transportation procedures established by the Ministry of Culture. The problem is not so much language - many of the staff speak English - as a different mentality, a problem which cannot be resolved simply by translation. My role in the project, far more important than my translation and editing of the catalogue, was to act as a cultural interpreter, to discover what exactly was being misunderstood in different conceptions of museum practice and to soothe the nerves of those desperate to understand, in a hurry, precisely why something so self-evident in one country was unacceptable in the other. Having lived in Russia for 13 of the last 15 years, 11 of them in St Petersburg (where I have been attached to the Hermitage since 1994), this is where I can contribute most.

Many of those working in British museums 15 years ago would recognise the problems faced by the Hermitage today, but Russia's greatest museum is catching up fast, with the advantage of being able to view our mistakes from a distance and choose from a variety of alternatives in everything from the storage and conservation of works on paper to the way they do their (prize-winning) web site. Curators are now able to travel freely, to develop the kind of links with staff and scholars in other museums which allow them to absorb the experience of those museums, to adapt it to their own practice. The Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House must and will contribute to extend such links.

Catherine Phillips