Last week we ended on a sad note regarding the fate of the Hermitage’s famous cat population during the siege of Leningrad, so on to more positive circumstances.
To compensate for their absence after the Great Patriotic War (World War 2), cats were once again “recruited” and installed within the Hermitage’s walls in a driven effort to return to life “before”.
Perhaps some degree of over-compensation was at work as by the mid 1960’s the museum’s cat population was approaching a non-viable, feline critical-mass.
The burgeoning post-war rodent population ultimately secured the presence of the on-premises cat task-force and so the Hermitage moggies became a fixture once again – and that’s the way it’s been ever since.
The relationship between the cats and the Hermitage has shifted in purpose somewhat since its inception and now the emphasis is on caring for the cats themselves.
The rats and mice no longer require hunting due to the use of modern poisons, and the offputting presence of the massed feline contingent itself (from a rodent’s perspective).
The semi-official cat-duties now only extend to roles as mascots for the grand building and institution that is the Hermitage – which has in turn benefitted from the tourist appeal that the cats bring along.
Their stylised images adorn postcards and other souvenir trinkets, and there is a running joke that the visitors ask about the cats more than the artworks on display. To some it may seem like a glorified cat-home, with added art! To others, such a situation exists in a pleasing equilibrium.
Officially the exhibition halls are off-limits to incumbent cats (and good luck policing that) though inevitably, wandering paws are destined to go where they should not. While out mingling with the artworks and the cooing tourists on the Hermitage’s main stage, a trespassing cat can expect to be unceremoniously plucked from its perch, or warm carpet, and escorted business-like, back into neutral territory.
Outside the public exhibition zone, they get to roam freely, off-premises too, along the embankment and beyond, before returning to sleep and eat some more, or to enjoy the fond caresses of ongoing tourist attention.
“Freely” also includes the office sections of the museum where they nestle amongst the paper-work and sprawl across desk-space, seemingly without objection from the human co-inhabitants. That’s officially 50 feline wanderers incidentally, but the reality is more like 70!
The heart of the Hermitage’s cat-world lies in its basement, where dozens of them retire daily to lounge upon the heating and ventilation pipes, to be fed or to be treated for some malady or other. There are facilities for all of the above scenarios, propped up by the efforts of museum staff and welcome donations.
These are the fruits of an official care program that began in the mid 1990’s. Before which, the cat’s lived in less than ideal conditions; it is a museum after all.
Since then, the Hermitage fully embraces and (literally) caters for its felince charges, seeking to temporarily house and rehome them.
Yes, Russia’s pre-eminent museum is also a cat-adoption agency; granting feline beneficiaries the added prestige and talking point of being a “Hermitage” cat, for which it is deemed an honour to adopt.