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Situated on the embankment of the Neva River and in the historical centre of Saint Petersburg, the building of the Kunstkammer has been a symbol of the Russian Academy of Sciences (the RAS, for short) since the early 18th century.
Founded by order of Peter the Great as the Kunstkammer, the museum was opened to the public in 1714. It was established for the purpose of collecting and researching rarities created by nature or man.
Currently, the collection of what have become officially known as the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography at the RAS (the Museum, for short) is one of the fullest and most interesting museums in the world. It contains over one million items and completely reflects the cultural diversity of the Old and New Worlds.
At the same time, the Museum has always been one of the largest research centres specialised on man's cultural heritage; it continues the traditions of the great 18th, 19th and 20th century Russian ethnographers and anthropologists.
Episodes in the History of the Museum.
Peter the Great issued decrees on submission of newborn "freaks of nature" as well as found unusual objects (The Complete Collection of Laws of the Russian Empire, vol. 4, Saint Petersburg, 1830, no. 1964, 3159, etc.). Initially, private collections of Peter the Great as well as anatomy and zoology collections were kept at the Pharmacy Office.
Due to the transfer of the Russian capital from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, all the collections were placed in the Summer Palace of the new capital. Collection keeping was assigned to the president of the Pharmacy Office, Court Physician Robert Areskin, and to a specially appointed supervisor of rarities and natural objects, Johann Schumacher. The Museum is named the Kunstkammer, but remains closed to the public.
The collections of the Kunstkammer were put on display and open to the public at the Kikin Hall, a mansion of an out-favour boyar, Aleksandr Kikin, near the Smolny Cathedral. By the time when this first Russian public museum was opened, the number of collections on display boggled the imagination of Russians and Europeans alike. The main source of new collections were the famous so-called "academic expeditions" of the first half of the 18th century (led by Daniel Gottlieb Messerschmidt, Gerhard Friedrich Mueller, Johann Georg Gmelin, Stepan Krashenninnikov, Vasily Tatishchev, etc.) and purchases of rarities in various European countries made by order of Peter the Great. Among the most well-known acquisitions of Peter the Great were the collection of Albertus Seba (described as "a nice collection of quadrupedal animals, birds, fish, snakes, lizards, shells and other curious objects from the East and West Indies") and the anatomical samples collection of Frederik Ruysch (now on display as a part of the First Natural Science Collections of the Kunstkammer exhibition). During its first years, the Museum also possessed a number of "live" exhibits such as monsters, dwarves and giants.
The Kunstkammer and the Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences were relocated to a building on the spit of the Vasilyevsky Island (by the architects Georg Johann Matarnovi and Mikhail Zemtsov) specially constructed by decree of Peter the Great. In accordance with a decree of Peter the Great, the Museum was free of charge for visitors. Moreover, Peter the Great believed that visitors should be habituated and treated rather than billed. According to preserved documents, visitors were offered coffee with sugar bread, refreshments and Hungarian wine. Visitors were met by a so-called sublibrarian or other knowledgeable employees who kindly gave them guided tours of all the rooms showing them rarities and providing them with brief explanations. Visitors were enthusiastic about seeing the Kunstkammer. Some documents witness that the museum was always visited by many people of various ranks.
A two-volume catalogue of the Kunstkammer, Musei Imperialis Petropolitani, and an illustrated guide in German and Russian were published.
A fire in the Kunstkammer building destroyed the greatest part of the ethnography collections. On the 7th of December 1747, the Sankt-Peterburgskiye Vedomosti (Saint Petersburg News) newpaper wrote: "Last Saturday at 5 o'clock in the morning, a fire broke out in the building of the Imperial Library and Kunstkammer. Very fast the fire spread to such a vast area that it was absolutely impossible to save the building, especially when the fire reached and embraced the tower... ." Mikhail Lomonosov who witnessed the fire believed that the reason for the disaster was a poor state of stoves and chimneys. He wrote about the fire: "In the Academy, apart from a large number of books and anatomical items, the whole gallery with the ethnography collections has burned." The Academy of Sciences took measures to restore the collections by sending lists of the lost collections to local governments and asking them to replenish the collections.
Repair works finished and the Museum opened again.
The Late 18th Century – the Early 19th Century
The ethnography collections of the Kunstkammer was enlarged with items brought by Captain James Cook from Polynesia, with ethnography collections from North-East Asia (Chukchi, Aleuts, and Eskimos) as well as from North and South Americas (collections created by the Russian-American Company and those created during round-the-world expeditions of Russian seamen and researchers such as Johann von Krusenstern, Yuri Lisyansky, Fabian von Bellingshausen, Mikhail Lazarev, Friedrich Luetke, and Mikhail Stanyukovich).
On the basis of the Kunstkammer, a number of independent academic museums were established: the Museum of Ethnography, the Museum of Asia, the Museum of Egypt, the Museum of Anatomy, the Museum of Zoology, the Museum of Botany, the Museum of Mineralogy and the Cabinet of Peter the Great (a decree of 8th January 1836). These museums were situated in two neighbouring buildings on the embankment of the Neva River; specifically, the Museum of Ethnography, the Museum of Asia, the Museum of Egypt, and the Cabinet of Peter the Great were situated in the building of the Kunstkammer. The first director of the Museum of Ethnography was Academician Andreas Sjogren (1844–1855) and the first curator was Leopold Radloff. The holdings of the Museum of Ethnography were enlarged with collections brought from expeditions and collections of Christian Fraehn, Friedrich Kolenati, Peter von Koeppen, Matthias Castren, Alexander von Middendorff, Leopold von Schrenck, Ivan Polyakov, K. T. Khlebnikov, Lavrenty Zagoskin, Ivan Voznesensky, etc.
Academician Karl von Baer became the head of the Cabinet of Anatomy; he laid the foundations of the anthropology (osteology) collections of the Kunstkammer. At present, these collections, which currently contain 15,000 skeletons, discovered primarily during archaeological excavations in European and Asian Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus, are kept by the Anthropology Department of the Kunstkammer; since the summer of 1995, this department occupies a separate building at 24 Sredny Avenue (the Vasilievsky Island).
5th December 1878
At the proposal of the director of the Museum of Ethnography, Academician Franz Schiefner, and the director of the Museum of Anthropology, Academician Karl von Baer, the Russian Academy of Sciences adopts a decision to merge the two museums establishing the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. The idea behind the new museum was to unite all the data on the origin of man and his culture represented by anthropology, archaeology and ethnography.
The holdings of the Museum were enlarged with unique collections brought by Russian explorers from Africa (Wilhelm Junker) and New Guinea (Nikolay Miklucho-Maklay).
Exhibitions of the Museum were opened in a new, built-on building on Tamozhenny Lane; these included exhibitions on Russia, Asia, Africa, Australia, and America and such sections as Products of Arts and Crafts, Utensils of Buddhism, Antiquities of the Stone Age, and Human Skulls and Skeletons.
Friedrich Radloff, a very famous specialist on ethnography and linguistics of the Siberian Turkic peoples, was appointed the director of the Museum. Under his leadership, the Museum organised a large project on obtaining new collections, their scientific descriptions, publications of research results (Transactions of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, in Russian: Sbornik Museya Antropologii i Etnografii). Many outstanding Russian ethnographers such as Waldemar Jochelson, Lev Sternberg and Vladimir Bogoraz-Tan were involved in collaboration with the museum.
Due to the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Saint Petersburg, the Museum was named the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. Since then, the Museum has been known by this name.
Museum expositions were extended thanks to an addition of the second floor to the building on Tamozhenny Lane: the new area was used for an archaeology exhibition.
A new ethnography exhibition was created.
On the basis of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, the Miklucho-Maklay Institute of Ethnography and Anthropology at the USSR Academy of Sciences (the Institute, for short) was created.
The Moscow branch of the Institute is created and Professor Sergey Tolstov is appointed its head. Later, the Moscow branch would become the main branch, and the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) branch would be named the Leningrad Branch of the Institute of Ethnography and Anthropology at the USSR Academy of Sciences.
The exhibitions of the Museum were reopened after a five-year break related to the Second World War and, specifically, the 1941–1944 Leningrad Blockade by the German troops. In 1946–1953, new exhibitions were created; they were dedicated to various peoples of the world. The most part of these exhibitions have been preserved up to the present.
The Museum again became an independent organisation. The Museum of Lomonosov, which had always been situated in the historic building of the Kunstkammer, but for many years had been a part of the Institute of Natural Sciences and Technology at the RAS, again became a part of the Museum. The Moscow branch of the the Institute was renamed the Miklucho-Maklay Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology at the RAS.
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