The State Hermitage in St. Petersburg: More Than 250 Years of Glorious History

Microscopes & instruments by ZEISS support the Laboratory for Scientific Restoration of Precious Metals

In December 2014, the State Hermitage Museum marked its 250th Anniversary. Today, the Hermitage is more than just one of the largest and most famous museums in the world; it is also an unprecedented restoration center, a storage facility and a science institution. OPTEC Group and ZEISS Microscopy were honored to be engaged in the provision of advanced optical equipment to the Hermitage laboratories.

On the occasion of the museum’s 250th Anniversary, the Laboratory for Science Restoration of Precious Metals received ZEISS flagship microscopes to work on a unique collection of gold hairpins owned by Catherine the Great. We talked about the specifics underlying the process of handling such interesting items with Igor Malkiel, Head of the Laboratory for Scientific Restoration of Precious Metals.

Igor Malkiel, Head of the Laboratory for Scientific Restoration of Precious Metals, The State Hermitage Museum.

Please tell us more about your laboratory and the restoration work you are performing

Our laboratory is fairly young, it was established in 2004; we only recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. When it was set up, it was decided that the laboratory would capitalize on the knowledge of specialists and the new high-tech equipment which would help us restore unique exhibits. Before the laboratory was established, we had no such expertise, and the existing equipment was not up to the level of our goals.

The laboratory is now one of the best in Europe in terms of its capabilities and, since 2004, several thousands of exhibits have been restored, something we could not have done before. For instance, we have many 3D modeling devices and we can reconstruct practically any elements of the exhibit that have been lost. We have 3D scanners, machines that can reproduce components according to a model, to the accuracy of a micron. There is also an entire set of laser equipment for metal wielding, cutting, engraving and refining. An amazing system for enamel restoration and protection has been designed and tested on our exhibits. We perform a really diverse range of operations and there are practically no such tasks that we cannot handle.

ZEISS loupe with golden hairpins of Catherine the Great

What kind of research has been done at the laboratory?

We pay more and more attention to analytical research. A restorer cannot work blindfold; he has to know and see what he is doing and what he is working with. We are assisted by all kinds of technology. For example, we use an X-ray fluorescence analyzer and within 15 – 20 seconds we receive the full spectrum of the metal composition. We perform other kinds of analysis as well. Optical microscopes allow us to visualize the tiniest elements of the objects, to take photographs and record video. When we learn how to use a technology, we have to make sure that it will work consistently every time, so we get things checked, controlled and rechecked again.

What education is needed to work at the laboratory?

There is no hard and fast rule about it. I am an archeologist by education; then I studied jewelry in Finland. As an archeologist, I know how the ancient jewelers worked; as a jeweler, I know how modern jewelers work and what modern technologies they employ. We have professional jewelers, engravers and, of course, restorers.

Where do you get your exhibits from? Only from the Hermitage?

The Hermitage possesses a huge collection of precious, jeweled exhibits. Of course, we work with them on a regular basis, getting them prepared for exhibitions, and monitoring integrity. It is our regular routine occupation. We are often approached by other museums, not only from Russia, but also from abroad. We help them, because there are not that many other owners of such equipment, and our know-how and expertise allow us to perform unique services. Our specialists visit training centers around the world on a regular basis, they get acquainted both with new and old technologies. Let me tell you that whatever equipment you might have, it is nothing but scrap metal without the right people to operate it.

You are now restoring a collection of hairpins owned by Catherine the Great. Please tell us some more about this work.

Examination of the hairpins with ZEISS Axio Zoom.V16

It is a unique collection of hairpins that is made up of 250 items manufactured by Chinese masters and there is not a collection like it anywhere in the world. The hairpin elements are very fragile; the wire they are made of can be only 30 microns thick. If you take such a hairpin in your hands, it might break simply because of its own weight, so you have to be extremely careful. An advanced imaging system with digital camera such as our ZEISS Axio Zoom.V16 zoom microscope lets you see what cannot normally be seen with your eyes; you can explore elements in great detail and take photos or shoot a video before, during or after your work for documentation or discussion purposes in crystal-clear quality and high resolution.

Before we set about restoring an item, we conduct some research. For example, they used to apply water-soluble mineral pigments to hairpins, there is a metal core and there are braze alloys. The items are very thin, so there are a great many restrictions: you cannot heat the item or moisturize, you cannot even touch it that often. At the same time, you need to examine the whole exhibit thoroughly: metal composition, type of braze alloys used; you have to understand the manufacturing technology and establish the pigment composition. All these things are mandatory. Moreover, after your work is done, all the initial kinematics should be retained, the hairpins should not be non-functional and everything should be able to move. There are butterflies that fly, likewise moths and birds – all of them should move as originally conceived by the master. It is essential to grasp how it all worked initially a hundred years ago. Furthermore, there is a certain semantic sequence: the turning of the phoenix’s head, the position of its wings. If you are not properly prepared, you can weld the elements in totally the wrong way, and this would be a total failure. That is why we have to read the appropriate literature, work with analogues, consult with curators, as they know the material far better than anyone else. Our next step is to choose the technology with which we will work on the exhibit. We give a presentation to a restoration committee meeting, sometimes performing virtual restoration, showing what will happen if we apply a given technique. The committee adopts a decision and approves the use of a particular technique to perform the restoration. Only after that do we proceed to the restoration process. Each step is photographed or recorded on video, we employ optical equipment, optical microscopes, electronic microscopes and other equipment. Based on the results, all the materials are submitted for the committee’s consideration.

In 2014, the Hermitage celebrated its 250th anniversary. What were your feelings about this event, about your work and the role you play?

The Hermitage is not just a matter of its exhibits. There are the people and there is the history. There are about 3,000 employees at the Hermitage; it is a whole town. It is good that we have such a museum in Russia; it is one of the largest in the world. It is not only a museum, but an enormous research center as well. We have a strong contingent of research workers specializing in diverse disciplines. We have an expert review team, a restoration team, ten expedition teams who work all across the country and elsewhere in the world. I am an archeologist by education and I have worked for many years and headed expeditions. Before working in restoration, I was a researcher at the Oriental Department, dealing with eastern archeology. The knowledge gained in the expedition, as well as work with museum funds helps me in the restoration practice. All the activities in the State Hermitage: the research, storage, exploration, the studies and the restoration efforts are all truly unique. All of us can do something we love, performing the work that we can call our mission in life.

And we are honored that our microscopes and instruments support the researchers and restorators of the State Hermitage with this mission. Thank you for the interview! 

About The State Hermitage

The State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, one of the largest and most famous museums in the world, is considered to have been founded in 1764, when Empress Catherine the Great acquired an impressive collection of works from the Berlin merchant Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky. The museum celebrates the anniversary of its founding each year on 7 December, St. Catherine’s Day.

Text & materials reproduced with kind permission by OPTEC Group and State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

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