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History of the First Russian Museum

In autumn 1714, Peter the Great gave an order to doctor Robert Areskin to move his personal collections and library from Moscow to the new capital and begin work on the creation of the first state public museum – the Kunstkamera. The collections, consisting of “fish, reptiles and insects in bottles”, mathematical, physics and chemistry instruments, and also books from the Tsar’s library, were put in Peter’s Summer Palace.

For Peter the Great, it was extremely important to create an image of a changing Russia. The emperor had the habit of receiving ambassadors in his museum, and a tour of the museum was part of the visit programme for all important guests.

The first public exhibition of the Kunstkamera was opened in 1719 in the “Kikin chambers” – the confiscated home of the disgraced boyar A. Kikin. At this time, it was also decided to build a special building. Peter chose the location for the Kunstkamera himself in the centre of the capital.

In December 1726, collections began to be brought to the new building of the museum. According to a report from the newspaper “Sankt-Peterburgskie vedemosti” on 26 November 1728, “yesterday the imperial library with the kunst and natural camera were opened after they were brought to the new academic chambers”. The working days of the library and kunstkamera were reported, and also the fact that entry to them was free. Peter believed that “enthusiasts should be taught and entertained, instead of taking money from them.”

After the division of the Kunstkamera in the 1830s into a number of independent museums and the creation of the Ethnographical and Anatomical Museums, and later (in 1878) the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, its main exhibitions were dedicated to the culture and traditions of the peoples of the world. For many decades, an important part of our museum was also the memorial Cabinet of Emperor Peter I.

With the addition of the Museum wing to the Kunstkamera building in the 1870s-80s, the area of the permanent exhibits significantly increased. In 1891, new exhibitions were opened, which represented collections on the traditional culture of peoples of the world, following the geographical principle (Russia, Asia, Africa, Australia and America). Along with the “ethnographic” department, such exhibitions as the “anthropological department” and the “department of prehistoric Stone age artefacts” were created. After the creation of the Ethnographic department of the Russian Museum (now the Russian ethnographic museum) at the beginning of the 20th century, the ethnography of peoples of distant countries and continents has been traditionally displayed at our museum.

The formation of the ethnographic funds of the museum in the second half of the 18th-early 19th century is connected with the names of leading Russian scholars and travellers: G.I. Langsdorf, Yu.F. Lisyansky, F.P. Litke, P.S. Pallas and others. In the 19th-20th century the museum received collections from I.G. Voznesenskii, N.N. Miklukho-Maklay, V.V. Junker, V.K. Arsen’ev, N.S. Gumilev and many others. Furthermore, the collection also acquired items from renowned European travellers such as J. Cook, I.F. Van Overmeer-Fissher, L. Frobenius and others.