The Kunstkamera (Кунсткамера) is, in my opinion, one of the highlights of St Petersburg and one of the best museums that I have been to in the city! Located on the banks of the Neva on Vasilievsky Island, directly opposite the Winter Palace, it was the first museum in the whole of Russia! It was established by Peter the Great in 1727 and currently has a collection of almost 2 million items!
The building itself is a wonderful piece of work, designed by architect Georg Johann Mattarnovy on the orders of Peter the Great and houses some breath-taking pieces of art. When it was first opened, it was known as a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ which was dedicated to preserving animal and human rarities, but is now houses many different forms of art and interesting memorabilia
So, the items held within the museum: The building itself has been used for different reasons over the years. For example, it housed the first Astronomical Observatory of the Academy of Sciences in the 18th century. From the top floor of the Kunstkamera, Russian astrologers first observed the night sky and the stars. In the museum, you can see an array of old scientific and astrological instruments, such as spyglasses and telescopes, which were used to study the secrets of space! Peter the Great saw that astronomy was vital to the development of the Russian nation, and used the work of his Western astrologers to study the lands of his empire. This actually put Russia one step ahead of more developed Western nations as the first country to apply astronomic studies to geography! The museum also houses one of the world’s first planetarium globes, which was given to Peter as a present during the Great Northern War in the early 1700s. Although it was badly damaged by a fire in the museum in 1747, the globe is still a masterful piece of engineering. Peter the Great even studied the globe every single morning!
The Kunstkamera was also home to the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Creating a scientific academy was one of Peter’s priorities when he built St Petersburg as he knew it would accelerate the development of Russia into a more modern state! This part of the museum includes a collection of the personal items of famous early Russian scholar Mikhail Lomonosov, as well as many fascinating scientific instruments, which have been used throughout the history of the city. This was one of my favourite parts of the Kunstkamera as it recreates the atmosphere of the scientific institution during the 18th century.
If you are interested in the cultures and peoples of the world, there is a very interesting part of the Kunstkamera which is dedicated to the ways of life of the peoples of the Middle East, Asia, Indonesia and India. However, the most intriguing (and potentially most shocking) part of the museum is the first scientific collections of the Kunstkamera. Peter the Great was obsessed with studying human anomalies and the anatomies of all types of living things as he wanted to get rid of the superstitious tendencies of the Russian people. This is what he referred to as the study of beings ‘in naturalia’. Honestly speaking, this part of the museum is not for the faint-hearted. In the 18th century, Peter issued a decree that all deformed still-born babies from around the country should be transferred to the imperial collection for scientific examination. Therefore, if you dare to enter this part of the museum, you will see deformed fetuses and unusual animals in jars, preserved since the days of Peter the Great!
Many people to whom I have spoken have said that they refused to go to the Kunstkamera because they thought that all you could see there was the anomalies of life that Peter had scrutinized. However, I can assure you that there is a lot more in the building than just that. The home of the Academy of Sciences and the first Astrological Observatory in Russia, the Kunstkamera must be visited to be believed!