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Establishment of the Kunstkamera in 1714

The issue of the date of establishment of the first Russian state public museum, the Kunstkamera, many times has been discussed in various studies on the museum’s history, as we do not know any specific decree or written order on the establishment of the Kunstkamera and the Library.  It may still remain undiscovered in archives, but it is more likely that it has never existed at all. 

It was J.D. Schumacher who had named 1714 as the year of the Kunstkamera establishment; he was directly involved in the organizing of the museum and its management for its first 47 years, up to his death in 1761.  In his book Chambers of the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Sciences, the Library, and the Kunstkamera with Brief Descriptions of All Artistic Items There Written for Those Who Fancy Viewing Such Things (Russian edition, 1744), Schumacher wrote, “The Library and the Kunstkamera were founded in 1714; in 1724, they were affiliated with the Academy of Sciences”.

Contemporary researchers associate the date of the Kunstkamera and Library establishment with 1714 due to the fact that by that time, the personal collections and library of Peter I, as well as books and natural history collections of the Apothecary Chancellery, had already been moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The collection and the library were placed temporarily in Peter’s Summer Palace. “The fact of concentration of a major collection of historical and ‘natural’ items in one place by that year gave grounds to historians to consider 1714 as the year of establishment of the first Russian historical and natural history museum that is known as the Kunstkamera”.

Another important argument for considering 1714 as the year of the establishment of the museum and the library may be the fact that exactly that year Peter I commissioned his Archiater (Chief Physician), Doctor of Medicine Robert Erskine, for “supervision” over the Kunstkamera and the library. In other words, he appointed a special person for working with the collections.  That same year, J.D. Schumacher came to Russia and accepted the job as the Secretary on Foreign Correspondence at the Apothecary (later on, Medical) Chancellery as a subordinate to R. Erskine.  At the same time, he was ordered the job of the “librarian,” namely, sorting out books and natural specimens that were collected in Peter’s Summer Palace. 

Jean Vollrath Bacmeister and Osip Belyayev, authors of museum catalogues and guides of the 18th century, also named 1714 as the year of the establishment of the Kunstkamera.

For absolutely unclear reasons, in a number of non-academic reference publications, Internet resources of the “calendar of memorial dates” type in the first place, January 31, 1714, is referred to as the precise date of the Kunstkamera establishment, which has no grounds at all.

An idea of the composition and size of the collections and the bibliotheca that formed the basis of the famous Kunstkamera of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg one can get from the same introduction to the Chambers of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences… by J.D. Schumacher:

“The Kunstkamera, nearly as the Library, had no great start, but later on, it got a notable increase. In 1714, it was composed of just a few hundred fishes, birds, and reptiles preserved in flasks, which Peter the Great had bought in Holland during his trip in 1698, and also of several freaks and anatomic items. In 1716, Albert Seba’s major collection was added to it, namely four-footed animals, birds, snakes, lizards, shells, and other wondrous productions of nature from East and West Indies, and also the Mineral Cabinet of Doctor Gottwald from Gdansk. In 1717, a collection of anatomic items, botanical samples, and butterflies of the famous doctor Ruysch was brought from Holland.  In 1721, gold and in part silver ancient and new medals were bought in Hamburg from Lüders’s Münz Cabinet (collection of coins and medals), and many physical and mathematical instruments bought from Musschenbroek, while all sorts of ancient and rare things worth looking over were purchased from Messier Chevalier’s office. In 1725, the private Cabinet of Peter the Great was donated to the Kunstkamera along with a great number of precious instruments and machines which His Imperial Majesty had been collecting through many years”.

The concept of the museum’s institution was tightly connected with the construction of a new capital of the Russian Empire, Saint Petersburg, a city of European type. Its major planned city-forming functions were fortification, ship-building, trade, ensembles of palaces and government buildings. Here, in the very center of the capital city, Peter the Great conceived to establish the Museum and the Academy.

While the city was only beginning to be built, and Peter himself was living in a small log house erected for him in only three days in May 1703, not far away from the Peter and Paul fortress under construction, it was virtually impossible to think about organization of the Kunstkamera and the Library. But once in 1714 the construction of the stone Summer Palace was completed on the Fontanka River bank, Peter ordered to move his private collection and the library to the new capital, and to bring here the collections purchased in Europe and temporarily stored in the Apothecary Chancellery in Moscow. All items were carefully moved and placed in the Green Study of the Summer Palace.

The collections were cramped in the palace premises. Valuable items could not be placed roomily and shown to general public. They needed a different space. In 1718, the museum specimens were placed in the house of a disgraced boyar Alexander Kikin, namely, the Kikin’s Mansion. A. Kikin was implicated in the conspiracy of Tsarevich Alexei and executed, and his stone palace, one of the first in the city, was confiscated by the treasury. Peter decided to adapt it for the Kunstkamera and the Library.

At the same time, in 1718, erection of a specially dedicated building of the Kunstkamera on the Basil Island Spit started. Till the completion of construction works in 1728, the Kunstkamera had been opened for visitors in the building of Kikin’s Mansion.