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The Kunstkamera: all world knowledge in one building

When we speak about the Kunstkamera, the first association of a modern person, especially in Russia, would be of a collection of something abnormal, a collection of “freaks” or “monsters.” However, in the 18th century, the perception of the first public museum in Russia was quite different. Before anything else, it was a collection of curiosities, but curiosities not in the sense of something rarely occurring or really anomalous, but also of what is a normal way of natural development but hidden from human eyes. These secrets of nature, hidden deep in the earth, forests and fields, on the bottoms of the seas and oceans, in myriads of stars above our heads, and even inside our own body, were revealing to a Kunstkamera visitor. The Museum was not a mere collection of items but also a repository of man’s knowledge about the world and human beings. All this: museum items, the science never known to an ordinary Russian before, and even instruments which helped to obtain new knowledge - everything was gathered in one specially erected building which still bears the same name: the Kunstkamera.

Peter I was the founder of the Kunstkamera: it was his own vision what type of collections will the Academy of Sciences need in the future and he was first collector for the new museum. At the time of combats and battles of the war with Sweden and implementation of sweeping reforms aimed at modernizing Russia, books and “naturalia” from the Apothecary Chanceller curiosities and books from the Tsar’s private collection along with books from the Gottorp Library of the Duke of Holstein were brought from Moscow to Saint-Petersburg, the new capital of the Russian Empire. All this was bundled in the one of the first stone building of the new city – Summer Palace, just completed for the Tsar by Architect Domenico Trezzini.

Peter’s Chief Physician, President of the Apothecary Chancellery Robert Erskine was charged with supervision over the books and naturalia. However, as the Chief Physician, Erskine had to accompany the Tsar in his military expeditions, and, therefore, to put collections in order and arrange preparations for opening the public Museum and public Library he hired Johann Daniel Schumacher, the secretary of the Apothecary Chancellery, who was born in Colmar and graduated from the University of Strasbourg. It happened in 1714. J.D. Schumacher, who had been in charge of the Kunstkamera and Library for many decades, mentioned 1714 as the date of the establishment of the first Russian State Public Museum and Library. 

The establishment of the Kunstkamera is related with the experiences and impressions that the Russian Tsar received during his trips abroad (his first trip in 1697–1698, and the second one in 1717–1718). As it is well known, the trips originated from political and military interests of Russia. One of the major political goals was creation of a new image of the changing Russia. Russian diplomats, commissioners, publishers, and journalists’ efforts were focused on its completion. Articles about the new Russia were appearing on the pages of European magazines. Already in 1706, Journal de Trevoux wrote that muses and sciences were moving up-North, where “presently ruling Tsar Peter Alekseyevich has a strong intention to enlighten his state”. From this point of view, establishment of a museum, for which collections had been acquired that made the entire Europe wonder, in the best possible way served the new image of Russia emerging in the opinion of European public. Yet, Peter I had another goal as well: dissemination of knowledge around Russia and establishment of the Academy of Sciences, a university and a gymnasium. All this was meant to work on studying country’s resources and inhabiting it peoples, and, therefore, this matter acquired state significance and the state scale.  

A special Tsar’s Edict of February 13, 1718, ordered to send “born freaks” for a fee to St. Petersburg, while for concealing them, a fine was levied: progress in anatomy contributed to the development of medicine, including the military. The same Edict prescribed to collect and donate for a fee old things found in the earth, remarkable stones, human and animal bones, old inscriptions on stones, iron or copper, old rifles, pottery, and everything that was “very old and extraordinary.”

The state status of the newly created Kunstkamera was, undoubtedly, one of the peculiarities that distinguished the St. Petersburg Kunstkamera from other European collections of similar type. The 1724 project on the establishment of the Academy of Sciences stated “As to make sure that the Academy had no lack of appropriate means, it ought for the library and natural items storeroom of the Academy to be opened <…>, those books and instruments, which the Academy is needful for, should be ordered or made here”.

An academic museum, it was formed at the account of academic expeditions’ gatherings. The Kunstkamera was playing an enormous role in solving state goals and in the establishment and development of the Academy of Sciences. The Museum accumulated specimens of foreign and Russian ores and minerals; flora and fauna of Russia were studied here; artefacts and religious objects of various peoples of Russia and, later on, the entire world were brought here, as well as findings from “ancient graves.” In other words, this was all that initiated the development of the ethnographic and archaeological sciences. In the Kunstkamera, by its richest numismatic collection, one could trace down the stages of world history from Ancient Rome to victories of the Russian arms in the Great Northern War.

In the first half of the 18th century, the Kunstkamera became organized as a state-of-the-art for that time universal museum. Thanks to the surviving documents and engravings published at that time, we can “walk” through the halls of the Museum and the Library which composed a single whole.

Boatmen were bringing visitors to the Kunstkamera building by boats. The entrance was not from the Neva’s embankment but from the northern side. By the stairs, past the bindery and the shop “of books of academic print,” the viewers would come to the lower hall of the Library. Between the windows along the walls and inside, along the perimeter, 46 library showcases with books on the history, philosophy, rhetoric, mathematics, and geography were standing. On the same floor, Assistant Librarian had 4 showcases with inventories of the Library and the Museum, as well as catalogues of others European kunstkameras, cabinets of naturalia and libraries. On the second floor of the Library, books on anatomy, medicine, chemistry, and natural history were kept in 22 cases. The third floor housed books on gardening, architecture, genealogy, optics, hydraulics, atlases and maps, and Chinese, Turkish, and Persian books. One of the showcases contained publications of the Academy of Sciences in Russian, and three others had Russian printed books, while manuscripts were kept in three extra showcases. The Library also had a collection of paintings, and two big globes were kept in the hall of the second floor.  

After the hall with the Library on the first floor, we would get to the Anatomical Theatre rising in semicircle. The crescent benches were placed one above another in four sectors. However, public autopsies were infrequent: autopsies in the Anatomical Theatre were an instrument of scientific researches and not a “performance” for public. Preparations acquired in the course of professors and adjuncts’ scientific activities stood in the 12 showcases of the Anatomical Theatre.  

Halls of the Kunstkamera were constructed as enfilade, and because of this, one could easily move from the Anatomical Theatre into a different hall where the famous Frederick Ruysch’s anatomical collection was kept. Showcases along the walls contained preparations of human parts: skin, muscles, brain, etc. Human skeletons stood in between the showcases. Along the interior perimeter of the hall, there were 24 showcases with Fr. Ruysch and A. Seba’s zoological preparations: “frogs and shell-skinned animals,” “all sorts of lizards,” snakes, fishes, and “various reptiles.” 

Further on along the corridor and to the left, the visitor would get into three connected halls with the mineralogical collection. It contained some foreign mineral rarities, but mostly minerals from particular Russian provinces: alum, sulfur, resin, and various ores (iron, copper, gold). Petrified remains were kept in two showcases. The educational character of the Kunstkamera revealed itself in these halls not only in the richness of the collection but also in the model of a mining plant installed in one of the showcases. And in front of the entrance to the third hall, the visitor could see a showcase with shells “and on the sides, two artfully composed grottos of sea stones, grasses, and shells.”

Out of these halls into the corridor and a little bit back to the right, visitors would get to the halls, of which the first one was the chamber with drawings of all items kept in the Kunstkamera. Special cases shaped as books were made for storing them. Next to it, there was a “storeroom” where “all sorts of curious and valuable things made of gold, silver, and precious stones” were kept: daggers, necklaces, diadems, horse harnesses, the collection named “Scythian Gold,” golden and silver vessels, and keys to various cities. This hall was connected to the “münz-cabinet,” a collection of coins and medals, where the numismatic collection was systematized by “states” and placed in 8 showcases.

Back to the Anatomical Theatre, visitors could go upstairs to the second floor where the showcases accommodated bones (including those of a mammoth and a whale), horns of quadruped, and a few animal skeletons. In the next hall to the left, there were four-footed animals, birds, and plants. Systematization was based on the most advanced research studies of that epoch.  

Herbariums in the Kunstkamera were placed in the lower parts of the showcases. Fr. Ruysch’s herbarium was presented by Tournefort’s principle. G.W. Steller’s herbarium collected during his Siberian expedition nearby Irkutsk was also here, as well as three J.G. Gmelin’s collections. Three showcases were presenting seeds of medicinal herbs.

The four following “storerooms” were dedicated to Peter the Great and were called “Peter the Great’s Memorial Cabinet.” The famous “wax person” of the Emperor was staying in one of the rooms, next to his garments, sword, and other memorial objects. Peter’s “table” books on mathematics, ship building, civil and military architecture, and engraving on copper plates were also here. The turnery of Peter I with lathes, which he liked to work on, and a few items he had turned occupied three adjacent rooms.

Upstairs, in the galleries, artistic works were exhibited in the showcases on the right side: wax and plaster figures, items carved of wood, ivory, and stone. The collection of “artificialias” was quite substantial: it occupied 10 showcases. On the left side of the gallery, there was what we would nowadays call an ethnographic collection.  Essentially, these were things brought from academic expeditions: clothes of Siberian and other peoples of Russia and religious attributes, such as Shamans’ drums, clothes, and images of gods or, how they were called, “idols.” The extensive Chinese collection was also here.

Two showcases in the same gallery contained archeological findings made of bronze and alloys of different metals.

The famous Gottorp globe was installed in the central round hall above the Anatomical Theatre. Along the walls, showcases with scientific physical, astronomical, and mathematical instruments: sundials, globes, spheres, burning mirrors, ship models, were standing. Three observatories were located right above the globe: the lower and the upper big and small ones.

Such was the Kunstkamera in its golden age, up until the mid-18th century, embodying Peter the Great’s ideas and dreams, a unique for that time universal public and scientific museum. 

However, the direct connection of the Kunstkamera with progress in the sciences resulted in a situation that it ceased to exist as an encyclopedic museum in the early decades of the 19th century. Differentiation of sciences led to changes in the museum operation: specialized museums superseded universal museums. Collections of Peter’s Kunstkamera formed the basis of the Zoological, Botanical, Mineralogical, Asiatic, and Ethnographical Museums, and the Anatomical, Numismatic, Egyptian, and Memorial Peter the Great’s Cabinets. A substantial part of the collections, including the Numismatic and Egypt ones, scientific instruments, paintings, and the Memorial Peter the Great’s Collection were handed over in different years to the Hermitage.  It could not be otherwise, because the Kunstkamera of Peter the Great had been conceived and created by him and his companions not only as a collection of rarities and curiosities, but a scientific museum, and therefore, it was a living organism, it was a part of constantly developing scientific knowledge.