Established by Peter the Great and completed in 1727, Kuntskamera was the first museum in Russia and contains a collection of almost 2,000,000 items. It is located in the center of St. Petersburg, just across the Neva River from Winter Palace and the State Hermitage Museum. The museum houses a collection of natural and human oddities and was initially created to enlighten the Russian people dispel the belief in monsters. Peter the Great was quoted as saying “I want the people to observe and to learn.”
Collections such as Kuntskamera were quite fashionable in Europe during the reign of Peter the Great. Most of these collections were stored in monasteries, churches, in the state treasury, or were privately owned by wealthy noblemen. Kuntskamera can be considered one of the richest of all comparable European collections.
While visiting Holland in 1697 Peter the Great attended the lectures of Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731), the most celebrated anatomist of that period of time. Peter was thoroughly impressed with Ruysch’s collection of rarities and decided to purchase the entire collection of over 2,000 anatomical preparations. The collection was carefully moved to St. Petersburg and exhibited free to the public who were welcomed with free shot of vodka or a cup of coffee with sweets. Nobles were treated to Hungarian wine as they browsed the odd rarities.
In 1718 Peter the Great signed a resolution that read: “Should anyone find underground or underwater some old thing, namely: unusual or rare stones, human skeletons or bones of animals, fishes or birds, which differ from ours, or which are bigger or smaller than normal, as well as old inscriptions on stones, iron or bronze…” kitchen utensils, weapons, in other words all “old or wondrous” objects, the latter should be promptly submitted for the tsar’s inspection. Soon after this resolution various oddities began to arrive from all around Russia and the world including a sheep from Vyborg with two tongues and two sets of eyes situated on each side, lambs from Tobolsk, one with eight legs and the other with three eyes.
At first the collection was housed in the Summer Palace, the first residence of Peter the Great on the bank of the Fontanka River. The collection was so enormous that separate rooms were required including servants to keep and preserve the objects. It was at this point Peter the Great decided to name these rooms “kunstkamera” (kunstkammer in German) according to the European fashion, which meant “cabinet of rarities.”
In the past Kuntskamera included unusual, “live” exhibitions such as deformed people which were called “monsters” or “freaks”, and who lived at Kuntskamera. An example included Mr. Foma Ignatiev, a dwarf who stood 4’16” tall and had only 2 fingers on each hand and foot, similar to crayfish claws. In those days collecting different freaks, dwarfs, or giants was fashionable in Europe. European kings would place them in their courts either as motley fools for entertainment, as servants or as bodyguards. Peter the Great also partook in such fashion and brought a giant named Bourgeois to Russia. Bourgeois stood 7’4” tall and when he walked along the streets, he was always towering over a crowd of people.
Peter the Great was the best guide of the museum and enjoyed showcasing the collections to foreign ambassadors and Russian noblemen while discussing the strange exhibits.
The museum includes a library, an anatomical theater, and an observatory. Some of the strange curiosities in Kuntskamera include:
- A hermaphrodite
- Siamese twins
- Two-headed sheep
- The heart and the skeleton of Peter the Greats’ personal servant, “Bourgeois”, a giant of 7’4”
- Various torture devices
- Great Gottorp Globe – the first planetarium globe in the world
- A collection of teeth, removed by Peter the Great
At present Kuntskamera is home to the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography and includes remnants of Peter the Greats’ bizarre collection. A guided tour of Kuntskamera is an enlightening experience and a showcase of oddities and rarities from around the globe.