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20 September 2018

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The Museum of All Things

Author: Natalia Kopaneva
Translation: Eugenia Sokolskaya

Nov/Dec 2014
Page 46   ( 8 pages)

Summary: Founded by Peter the Great, St. Petersburg's Kunstkamera is one of the world's oldest museums. Intended as a storehouse and library of all the world's knowledge, it has been both more and less than that.


There are perhaps no more than half a dozen museums worldwide that have celebrated a three-hundred-year anniversary. This year, Russia’s first public, state-run museum, St. Petersburg’s Kunstkamera, did just that.

Nowadays, the name Kunstkamera evokes a collection of anomalies, of “freaks” and “monsters.” But in the eighteenth century, the museum’s image was rather different. Back then, it was primarily a collection of curiosities, and not just the rare or truly anomalous: it included items that were not at all unusual, but tended to be hidden from human eyes. People came to the Kunstkamera to see what mysteries nature kept tucked away deep in the ground, in forests and fields, seas and oceans, in constellations, and even in our own bodies.

Yet the museum was far more than a collection of objects: it served as a repository of human knowledge about the world and ourselves. The exhibits, the findings of science previously unknown to Russians, and even the instruments that allowed for the extraction of new knowledge – all of these were brought together in this one building, erected for that purpose.

The Kunstkamera (or Kunstkammer) was created by Peter the Great: he conceived the idea and acquired its first collections. Amid wars and struggles, the destruction of the old and creation of the new, he had books and “naturalia” brought from the Apothecaries’ Chancery* in Moscow, along with preserved anatomical parts and books from the tsar’s personal library, to be complemented by books from the Duke of Holstein’s library in Gottorf. All of this was stockpiled in the stone Summer Palace, recently completed for the tsar by architect Domenico Trezzini.

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