Kunstkamera is the first Russian public museum. The foundation of a unique collection of entertaining wonders and scientific rarities created by nature or man was laid under Peter the Great. The Kunstkamera became one of the largest ethnographic museums in the world over time. More than a million interesting exhibits are stored here.
There is a legend that Peter the Great, walking along Vasilyevsky Island, paid attention to two pines. The branches of one of them were rooted in the other one so that it was impossible to understand which tree they belong to. This unusual find gave the emperor the idea of building the Kunstkamera, the first museum.
The first kunstkamera originated in Western and Central Europe in the XV century. The collections included the so-called ‘naturalia’ – samples of exotic fauna and flora, the remains of fossil animals, nuggets and minerals, anatomical anomalies of living beings, including humans. Collectors often purchased rarities for a fabulous fee. For example, they bought a unicorn horn. Rhinoceros or narwhal horn is usually considered a mythical artefact.
The literal translation of the word “Kunstkamera” is an “art room”. The art was understood not as masterpieces of world painting or sculptures, but extraordinary things. Beauty, ugliness, exotic, unusual sizes, shapes and colours, rare manufacturing techniques – by these criteria new items were selected.
The emperor brought the first ethnographic exhibits from Copenhagen. There were wooden shoes and half fossilized bread that he received in the local museum.
At the same time, the so-called monsters, by order of the emperor, were brought to St. Petersburg. The museum has become one of the best in the world. It carried out serious scientific research, collected the library.
In 1747, during a fire, many exhibits were burned. But the descendants of the emperor continued his work.
The monumental building of the museum is located on the Universitetskaya Embankment. It is an interesting example of innovation in Russian architecture at the beginning of the 18th century.
The octagonal tower with a height of 38 meters is in the central part of the building. It is crowned with a huge dome of the glass globe. Its diameter is 3 meters, and weight – 3.5 tons. The complex architecture and decorative composition of the tower and make it one of the dominants of the central part of the city.
The tower works like an observatory. The lower part of it is decorated with niches with a sculpture, framing the main entrance. The anatomical museum is inside it.
Anthropological, ethnographic and archaeological exhibits are included in the museum’s collection. This is the oldest anatomical collection of Ruysch, and a collection of monsters of the Peter epoch, and artefacts brought from later expeditions from around the world. The most popular exhibits of the museum are:
The head of Mary Hamilton
The head of Mary Hamilton, the chamber-maid of honour Catherine I and Peter the Great’s favourite. Accused by the empress of stealing jewels and in infanticide, Lady Hamilton received the death sentence. Soon she was executed. And only half a century later, in the basement of the Academy of Sciences, a glass vessel with two human heads in formaldehyde was found. They belonged to Maria Hamilton and William Mons, who was executed by order of Peter for an affair with Empress Catherine I.
Peter the Great was always interested in the anomalies of human nature and their causes. He maintained contacts with foreign anatomists and acquired a variety of natural exhibits. If he could not get them, wax copies were made for his collection.
The Kunstkamera collection contains many different animals. Many of them, like human artefacts, exhibit various deformities and anomalies.
The Gottorp Globe
The Gottorp Globe is one of the symbols of the Kunstkamera. This is an exact copy of the globe, which Peter the Great received as a gift from the Duke of Holland, Carl Friedrich, and which burned down during a fire in 1747. What is so remarkable this exhibit? Its dimensions are such that a table is installed inside, and the bench for 12 people stands next to it. The physical map of the world is outside the globe and you can watch the star map inside it.
The story of the Kunstkamera would not be complete without a description of the courtyard near the building. There are some amazing exhibits in this inconspicuous place. You can watch them for free. These are the stone idols of Indian gods from South Colombia.
The central place of the museum is occupied by the first natural science collection. You can find it on the second floor of the Kunstkamera. But photography is strictly prohibited here. Anomalies of the human body: giants and dwarfs, twins who have grown together with their bellies, heads, backs, pelvis, two-faced freaks, people with one leg, hare lip, not divided brain, and so on.
At the time of Peter the Great, who was fond of anatomy and surgery, and even carried out simple operations, anatomists studied monsters. The Anatomical Theater was created on the lower floor of the Kunstkamera.
- Tuesday-Sunday: 11 AM – 6 PM
- Monday: the day-off
Last Tuesday each month – a clean-up day
On the 1st of January, 9th of May, 31st of December the museum doesn’t work.
- Adults – 300 rubles
- Schoolchildren and students – 100 rubles
Free admission for individual visitors by free entry ticket: The third Thursday of a month, except May, June, July, August.
Visitors of the Kunstkamera should be prepared to wait for their turn at the entrance to the museum. The safety of the collections, the comfort and security of the museum guests are very important, therefore the administration has put limitations on passing capacity to the museum building. Excursion groups enter the museum without waiting in line.
Universitetskaya Embankment, 3
- Nevsky Prospect
How to get
- Buses: 7, 10, 24, 47, 191
- Trolleybuses: 1, 7, 10, 11