Kunstkamera and the Cabinet of Curiosities
Established in 1717, the Kunstkamera is the oldest museum in Russia and is a feast for curious minds. With over 2,000,000 exhibits, there is something to pique the interest of both the casual curiosity seeker and the academic anthropologist alike.
Kunstkamera Becomes the First Russian Museum
In establishing the Kunstkamera Museum, Peter the Great’s vision was to educate, enlighten and ‘ westernize’ the Russian people by bringing them ‘all the knowledge of the world’. The first exhibits were from his personal zoological and anatomical collection, which he purchased in 1717 on his second trip to Europe from the renowned Dutch scientist, Frederick Ruysch.
Education for the People
Kunstkamera was not only a home for this collection and a place for scientists to study, but also somewhere the Russians could go to see a variety of life. Peter hoped that it could dispel their superstitions about the existence of ‘monsters’, but how would his collection do this?
In the 18th century, anatomists loved studying deformities. They believed that these specimens could offer some insight into the development of organisms. Peter was a passionate learner and his collection was full of these anatomical anomalies. By demonstrating that these ‘monstrosities’ were, in fact, natural misfortunes, newly enlightened Russians could be freed from their superstitions. But first, he needed to entice the public to visit. The canny Peter offered free cakes and vodka and so the museum received its first visitors.
Kunstkamera’s Cabinet of Curiosities Opens
Wanting to expand his collection for both public exhibition and scientific study by the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences, which was at the time housed in the Kunstkamera, he issued a decree: any deformity, human or animal, was to be sent to the museum to be studied and preserved. Failure to comply would result in a hefty fine. Thus creatures like the two-headed calf and three-eyed sheep entered into the menagerie.
It is this somewhat macabre collection that the museum is now famous for, and a selection of the original collection is housed in the ‘First Scientific Collections of the Kunstkamera’ exhibition. Not for the faint of heart, it nevertheless provides a fascinating glimpse at the work of 18th-century anatomists, and the enlightenment ideals of its founder, Peter the Great.
Russia’s First Observatory Opens
As well as wanting all the knowledge of the world, the scientists housed in the Kunstkamera also turned their interests towards the stars. Realizing the importance of astronomy in the study of geography, Peter opened Russia’s first astronomical observatory, which was housed in Kunstkamera’s tower. The observations made here from the 18th to the early 19th centuries provided invaluable information for Russia’s geographers and cartographers. It also provided the basis for mapping not only St. Petersburg, but also all of Russia. Many of the instruments originally used in these observations are still housed in the tower, forming a fascinating exhibition on the tower’s original use. Further starry delights can be found in the Gottorp Globe. It is an enormous 17th-century globe, which one can enter to observe the constellations, mapped out in a glorious baroque style.
All Human Life is Represented at Kunstkamera
Today, the majority of the museum is given over to Ethnographic exhibitions, which lead you on a fascinating journey around the globe. Russian travelers and explorers have continued to contribute rarities and curiosities to the ethnographic collections. This has resulted in the rich array of items exhibited there today. Displayed in a region-by-region survey of the people of the world, you are presented with the richness and diversity of traditional cultures from around the globe. From the domestic to the ritual and sacred, there really are all forms of human life represented here in an astounding variety.
Tips for Visiting
Open Tuesday – Sunday 11:00 am to 6:00 pm
Last admission at 5:00 pm
Closed on Mondays and the last Tuesday of the month.
Free every 3rd Thursday of the month except in peak season (May / June / July / August)
**Don’t go right after lunch.