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The Kunstkammer in the 18th Century

"The cradle of academic museums"

Research expeditions organized by the Academy substantially enlarged the collections of all the Kunstkammer's departments. An old guide-book read: "Our antiquarium contains not only all the objects that are considered the rarest and the most precious among others, but also such articles that one can not find anywhere else". This was not an exaggeration. There were so many collections that they overflowed the rooms of the building; in fact many of them remained unpacked for a long time. The rooms were filled with boxes, cases and packages, and there was no access to many of the bookcases. The museum now resembled a warehouse rather than a scientific establishment.

In the 18th century Peter's Kunstkammer possessed unique collections in the areas of natural history and ethnography. Thanks to the treasures accumulated by the scientists, the museum received such a great number of exhibits which "no other European museum could boast of". It still remained the sole and the central Russian museum. During the first half of the 18th century the Kunstkammer accumulated an enormous number of all kinds of exhibits. They were brought in from all parts of the world excluding Australia. No other European museum could claim to have a richer collection. All exhibits were divided into groups and placed in different rooms: the Kunst-cabinet, Natur-laboratory, Emperor's study, Physical cabinet, Muntz-cabinet and Library. All the materials had to be systematized, described in special catalogues and properly arranged. This work was also carried out by the first academicians. Now there was no place for haphazard gatherings of random "monsters", "rarities" and "curios". Their place was taken by systematic collections of animals, insects and minerals as well as ethnographic collections.

The Kunstkammer suffered great damage from a terrible fire that broke out in 1747: part of the museum collections and library books were completely destroyed. The staff managed to save part of the collections, but on the whole the damage was quite extensive. Restoration work took many years, and only in 1766 was the museum reopened to the public. However, for decades the building itself remained without the tower cupola. The tower was restored much later, only after the Second World War, in 1948. Gradually the Kunstkammer recovered its losses and at the same time underwent reorganization. It became a unique museum of Nature and Man with no analogues in Russia or even the countries of western Europe.

In the Emperor's Study created in memory of Peter the Great and intended to glorify his deeds, visitors used to be treated to a wax figure of the tsar himself leaning back wearily in his armchair. He looked straight ahead with wide open eyes, and his face was frightening in its close resemblance to the living original. The architect Rastrelli made the face from the alabaster death mask taken after Peter's death. The body of the figure was carved from wood, and the arms and legs fixed on hinges so they could be arranged in any desired position. This "wax figure" sat in the tsar's favorite chair, which he often used during official receptions: the chair was placed on a slightly elevated platform under a canopy. Other personal belongings of the tsar were also kept in the Kunstkammer: Peter's lathes, instruments and tools, a green cloth uniform of the Preobrazhensky regiment, a hat with a bullet hole, Peter's famous club with its ivory handle, and other objects.

As the collections of the Kunstkammer grew, there was not enough space for all the exhibits. With the development of the sciences and accumulation of materials, different scientific and technical institutions split off from the Kunstkammer: a chemical laboratory, an astronomical observatory, a botanical garden and a printing house. In 1764 a special Academy of Arts was established, which later incorporated all the departments connected with the crafts and art itself.

During the 19th century the Academy of Sciences and the Kunstkammer went through a lot of serious changes. In 1818 the Asian Museum was established, thus laying the foundations for Oriental Studies in the city. In the beginning of the 19th century several academic museums were established on the basis of the Kunstkammer collections: the Museum of Mineralogy, the Museum of Anatomy, the Museum of Zoology, the Botanical and Ethnographic museums. Later either academic institutions or the presently existing museums emerged from the original ones.

The former type of museum with out-dated principles of displaying exhibits found it increasingly difficult to satisfy changing scientific and cultural needs. Now museums started to lead independent research work and at the same time turned into guided auditoriums with new requirements for museum expositions.

The Ethnographic Museum became a separate entity in 1837. Later it became the only Russian museum for the two closely linked sciences of ethnography and anthropology. Thus is was dubbed, appropriately, the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. This museum inherited both the Kunstkammer collections and its original building.