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The First Russian Museum

"I want the people to observe and to learn..."

It cannot be said that Peter was the first Russian collector. Quite a number of collections comprising sufficiently valuable and rare objects had existed before his time. The vast majority of them were kept in churches, monasteries, in the state treasury or were privately owned by wealthy noblemen. In the days of his youth Peter saw "rarities" owned by his father and those kept in the Kremlin Armory.

After making the decision to transfer the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg, Peter ordered that his personal collection and library--the so-called "tsar's cabinet"--be delivered to the new capital as well. All the articles were transferred and with the greatest care arranged in the Summer Palace, the first residence of Peter the Great on the bank of the Fontanka River in the emerging city. The collections turned out to be so numerous that they required special rooms and an entire staff of servants to keep and preserve the objects. It was decided to name these rooms the "kunstkamera" (kunstkammer in German) according to the European fashion, which in translation meant "cabinet of rarities". This was in 1714, and this year is considered the founding date of the first Russian museum.

Peter arranged the "tsar's cabinet" on a royal scale typical of all his endeavors. The scope of the undertaking involved the entire state. In 1717 Peter ordered the governor of Voronezh to start trapping birds and wild animals. In 1718 he signed a resolution that read: "Should anyone find underground or underwater some old thing, namely: unusual or rare stones, human skeletons or bones of animals, fishes or birds, which differ from ours, or which are bigger or smaller than normal, as well as old inscriptions on stones, iron or bronze..." kitchen utensils, weapons, in other words all "old or wondrous" objects, the latter should be promptly submitted for the tsar's inspection. And from all around Russia various findings or oddities started to arrive: a sheep from Vyborg with two tongues and two sets of eyes situated on each side, lambs from Tobolsk, one with eight legs and the other with three eyes. All travelers were ordered to buy "rare" things both from foreign and domestic "trading people".

Peter the Great did not intend to amass riches. He had another goal: to enlighten his country. By acquiring anatomical, zoological, mineralogical and other rarities, "natural or created by skill" he hoped to get a "systematic idea of natural history" and wanted them to serve, as Leibniz had said, "as a means for perfection of arts and sciences".

The palace's chambers were not spacious enough to display the collections. Valuable items could not be comfortably arranged and shown to the public at large. They required larger premises. In 1718 the museum articles were transferred to the house of exiled nobleman Alexander Vasilievich Kikin, dubbed the Kikin Mansion after it's owner. Kikin himself had been involved in the case of tsarevich Alexis and later executed, while his house was confiscated by the tsar's treasury. Peter decided to renovate and remodel it so that the building could be used by the Kunstkammer and the Library. In its day the house was considered large; it towered a full two stories. All things collected were arranged here in due order and by highest decree it was established that the building should serve to "let in all those who want to see.. the objects and guide them and explain things to them". At that time all the objects kept in the tsar's collections became accessible to the general public. Peter said openly: "I want people to observe and to learn!" The tsar himself knew the museum exhibits quite well: he either bought them abroad himself or ordered them to be delivered to the capital. He himself was the best guide and loved to show foreign ambassadors and Russian noblemen around the museum and tell them about its exhibits.

The eight halls of the Kikin mansion housed not only the museum. This was the first scientific complex in Russia, and a very significant one at that. It also accommodated Peter's library of rare books and a laboratory, where "the proper study of chemistry... should be diligently undertaken". The Kunstkammer also contained a collection of old coins and medals, anatomical preparations and specimens, zoological and botanical curios, "wondrous stones", ancient, archeological findings and a great many other things; in fact, there were so many different rarities and oddities, that "one might be completely overwhelmed by astonishment" according to the testimony of one foreign visitor.

At that time the museum was quite different from the modern Kunstkammer. The first room contained pickled specimens in glass vials: most of them came from the collection of the Dutch anatomist Ruysch bought by Peter the Great during his tour with the Great Embassy. Here one could also see skillfully prepared heads of infants and children, separate parts of human bodies, small animals, birds and other similar strange, odd objects. Next to them two wall cases contained herbariums and a multitude of small cases with exquisite butterflies, animals and beautiful sea-shells. The objects were arranged in compositions to enhance their peculiarities and to show the fleeting nature of human life.

In the next room visitors could see different stages of development of a human embryo in the jars of preserved anatomical specimens, as well as monsters, stuffed elephants and lizards and many items made of ivory. Three other rooms contained various birds and animals, "strange mice with dog faces", a lot of amber, beautiful butterflies and other similarly astounding objects. They also contained the "Muntz-cabinet", where coins and medals were on display. Thus in three departments (the natur-kamera, the "muntz-cabinet" and the library) zoological, anatomical, ichthyological, geological, numismatic and ethnographic collections as well as books were displayed haphazardly without the slightest trace of a system. With their help one could get an idea of the flora and fauna of both Russia and far away lands, and learn about the ways of life and traditions of different peoples. The old Kunstkammer also housed objects connected with the glorious victories of the Russian army.

The old Kunstkammer also contained unusual, "live" exhibits such as deformed people called "monsters" or "freaks". They differed from normal, ordinary people in some strange or peculiar feature. For example, the freak Foma Ignatiev was a dwarf who was only 126 centimeters tall. Not only was he remarkable for his small size; he had only two digits each on his hands and feet, which resembled crayfish claws. These "monsters" or freaks lived at the Kunstkammer and were displayed to visitors along with the rest of the collection.

In those days collecting different monsters, dwarfs and giants was fashionable in Europe. European kings tried to keep them at their courts either as motley fools for entertainment, or as servants or bodyguards. Following this fashion, Peter brought from abroad a giant named Bourgeois. Bourgeois was of a gigantic height... all of 2 meters 27 centimeters. When he walked along the streets, he was always head and shoulders above the crowd. Peter himself was a very tall man and he loved tall people. He greatly enjoyed placing Bourgeois at the footboard of his carriage. After the death of Bourgeois his skeleton and specimens of some of his organs preserved in jars were donated to the museum where they have been preserved to the present day.

The number of collections gradually increased. Wondrous things were flowing into the Kunstkammer from all parts of Russia: a deformed sheep with two mouths and two tongues, an eight-legged lamb, a three-legged infant, an even more peculiar creature which had "eyes under its nose and hands under its neck" and other similar oddities. People also brought ancient archeological objects: gold and silver articles dug up in the Astrakhan area, items belonging to the pagan era found "at the eastern edge of the Caspian Sea", a collection of idols, ancient manuscripts and rare coins. Birds and animals, herbs and roots, mineral samples, household utensils, garments and many other unusual things were brought to the museum.

The Kunstkammer - the first Russian state museum - was established with the purpose of "teaching and enlarging knowledge of living and dead nature and of artistic human creations". Contemporaries testified that the Kunstkammer's collection was perhaps the richest of all comparable European collections. Visitors were received with great hospitality, offered a cup of coffee with sweets, and those of noble origin were even treated to Hungarian wine as a refreshment. In western Europe at that time visitors were required to pay an entrance fee, and quite a substantial one at that, while in St. Petersburg Kustkammer collections were shown to anyone who cared to see them free of charge. The museum was conceived by Peter the Great as an educational center, and Peter believed that those who wished to acquire knowledge "should be tempted to come, but should not pay their money for it". Some contemporaries saw this as nothing but the tsar's whim.