With only a month and a half to go, I am making my way through as many of St. Petersburg’s attractions as I can. Today’s consistently appears on travel top 10 lists for creepy/spooky/disturbing museums: the Kunstkamera (Кунсткамера). After visiting, many of the AIFS students simply referred to it as “the Fetus Museum,” although its content and history are much more varied.
Officially known as the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, this was the first museum in Russia, and is one of the oldest in the world. The museum’s founder was (naturally) the Renaissance man himself, Peter the Great. Peter was interested in almost everything: shipbuilding, cobbling shoes, military technology, and medicine (to name a few). He had been collecting curiosities–stuffed animals, model ships, tools and astronomical instruments–for years already in the Summer Palace.
In 1718, The Tsar gave the order for the establishment of a “kunstkammer” (a chamber of art), and himself enriched the collection with exhibits brought back from each of his journeys abroad. The resulting exhibits were in the “cabinet of curiosities” style, a common type of collection for the period, with the goal to preserve “natural and human curiosities and rarities.” The underlying idea was to provide the visitor with full knowledge of the world: both its cultures and its natural phenomena. This knowledge was part of the Enlightenment that Peter dearly wanted to bring to his subjects, so when the museum opened, he motivated the public to visit by offering free pie and wine at the entrance. He had to hire a guard shortly thereafter, as Russians of the period did not know what to make of the museum, and usually just walked quickly in and out to get multiple helpings.
When you visit the Kunstkamera, there are two collections: the ethnographic (those dealing with ethnic costumes, artifacts, and practices) and the anthropological/scientific (including natural exhibits like minerals, taxidermy, and preserved anatomical specimens). There were originally sepeate museums for each collection, but it was eventually decided to consolidate them. Even today, the core of the collection is still made up of exhibits collected during Peter’s lifetime, the most famous being the anatomical specimens and assorted freaks prepared by the Dutch anatomist Frederick Ruysch.
One of Peter’s main goals was to debunk Russian superstitions with scientific fact, particularly the belief that individuals with deformities were “monsters,” or had been cursed in womb. In order to expand the collection, Tsar Peter issued one of his weirder orders: one in which he commanded that that all stillborn fetuses with deformities be sent to the Kunstkamera for examination, possibly followed by preservation and display. You can still see these today, from hydrocephalics to quintuplets:
Photography is not allowed in the Kunstkamera (and the babushkas there are much more militant in enforcing this rule than at other museums), but let’s be honest–these are the type of things that haunt you on their own anyway. If you can handle the weird (just try not to think about what you would do if one of them opened its eye), or if you just want to see the ethnographic collection, I highly recommend it.