Welcome to the Tiki Central 2.0 Beta. Read the announcement
Celebrating classic and modern Polynesian Pop

Tiki Central / Locating Tiki

Kunstkamera, St. Petersburg, RUSSIA (other)

Pages: 1 5 replies

Name: Kunstkamera
Type: Other!
Street: Universitetskaya Embarkment 3
City: St. Petersburg
Zip: 199034
country: RUSSIA
Status: operational

This institution's full title is "Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences". It was built in 1727, which makes it the oldest building in the world specifically built for a museum.

[ Edited by: bigbrotiki 2008-09-08 00:49 ]

While working in St Petersburg recently, I was overwhelmed by the city's cultural heritage. It seemed to me St. Petersburg had more stately buildings and palaces than Paris, Prague and Vienna combined. The most famous perhaps is the Hermitage, with its priceless collection of art from the centuries:

But though it is nice to see an original Gauguin such as this:

...and to visit the "Church of our Savior on the Spilt Blood" (built on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander the II.)...

...and to realize that all its interior murals are made from tiny mosaic stones (!):

...every tourist does that. Since I grew up in Europe, all that gilded baroque splendor and the ruling elite's displays of power and wealth leave me cold to some degree. I had my heart set on an often overlooked step child of the bunch: The Kunstkamera!

Some of you know of my fondness for Ethnographic museums, especially those whose exhibits have not been modernized and which retain some of the atmosphere of the early 20th Century museums whose exotic displays inspired the generation of modern artists from Picasso to Paolozzi. While in the second half of the 20th century the exhibitions in these kind of museums became more didactic and politically correct, as terms like "primitive" and "savage" became viewed as racist and imperialist discrimination, such concepts as weapons displays and miniature dioramas lived on in Tiki lounges throughout America:

African weapons display at Kunstkamera

Miniature Indonesian village at Kunstkamera

(I was also made aware that my main tool of earning a living, the film camera, owes its name to the term "chamber", or room, from the fact that the first camera, the "Camera Obscura", was in fact room-size, the word meaning "The obscure Chamber". So the Russian term "Kunstkamer-a" literally translated into German means "Art-Camera" --which is what I hope my camera, still or movie, produces to some degree :D )

The St. Petersburg Kunstkamera is one of the few museums where one can still get a sense of how museums came to be: They grew out of the "Chambers of Curiosities" assembled by individuals with a passion for the Natural Sciences. Zsar Peter the Great was such a curious man (quote):

"Peter visited western Europe at the age of 25. In 1697 he traveled abroad as part of the Great Embassy, and there for the first time saw those strange "kunst" cabinets, i.e. exhibitions of rarities and oddities. They reminded him of trading stalls, where jars containing pickled specimens of freaks were on display along with old coins, stuffed birds and skeletons of animals... each one furnished with some ancient inscription in an unknown language."

Advertisement for an early "Chamber of Curiosities"

Siamese twin skeleton displayed at Kunstkamera

"Once, while walking along a wild bank of the Neva River covered with trees, Peter noticed an unusual pine-tree. Its trunk was deformed by a semicircular branch, which had grown into it like the handle of a huge barn lock. "What a monster of a tree!" exclaimed Peter in amazement. He then ordered the tree cut down, the part of the trunk with the ingrown branch preserved, and that a new building for the future museum be constructed in its place."

Here is an abbreviated time line of the evolution of the Kunstkamera to an Ethnographic museum:

Among the collections that Peter the Great purchases, the most famous are Albert Seba’s collection, described as "a fine collection of quadrupeds, birds, fish, snakes, lizards, shells, and other extraordinary things from the East and West Indies." and F. Ryusch’s Collection of anatomical specimens (preserved in solution and "dry"). During the first years, the Museum presents "live" exhibits — freaks, dwarfs, giants.

At Peter the Great’s command, the Kunstkammer and the Academy of Sciences’ Library move into a specially built edifice on the Point of Vasilyevsky Island. (Architects: I. Matarnovi and M. G. Zemtsov.)
According to Peter the Great’s order, there is to be no charge for admission. He believes that "willing museum-goers should be instructed and entertained, and not compelled to pay money." Preserved documents tell us that visitors were offered "coffee and zuckerbrots (cakes)" and treated to hors d’oeuvres and Hungarian wine, all provided by money allotted by the Tsar. A librarian assistant or other qualified official would greet visitors and conduct them around the museum, showing them the rarities and giving brief explanations. The visitors would eagerly feast their eyes on the Museum’s exhibits. It is clear from documents that there was always "a great number of ... people of different ranks."

Late 18th -
Early 19th
The Kunstkammer adds items collected by Captain James Cook in Polynesia; ethnographic collections from Northeast Asia (Chukchi men, Aleutians, and Eskimos); from North and South America (collections of the Russian-American expedition, and world voyages of Russian sailors and researchers, I. F. Kruzenstern, Yury F. Lisnyavski, F. F. Bellinshausen, M. P. Lazarev, F. P. Litke, M. N. Stanjukovich, and others) to its acquisitions.

K. M. Baer, who established the Kunstkammer’s anthropological (osteological) collections becomes the Director of the Anatomy Museum. (At present, these collections, which contain about 15,000 skeletons, mostly from archeological excavations in the European and Asian parts of Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus are kept in the Kunstkammer’s Department of Physical Anthropology.

The Museum adds collections gathered by Russian travelers in Africa (V. V. Juncker) and New Guinea (N. N. Miklucho-Maclay).

Museum expositions reopen to the public after being closed for five years due to World War II and the Siege of Leningrad. From 1946 to 1953, new expositions are created, honoring the ethnography of the peoples of the world. For the most part, these expositions can still be seen in the Museum.

The Kunstkamera's entrance today:

Asian monsters guard the stairs...

...together with Pre-Columbian stalae.

Many of the old display cases house life size reproductions of natives in their customary garb (or lack thereof):

Unfortunately, no items from the extensive OCEANIC COLLECTION were on display. Quote:

"Thanks to the assistance provided by the Russian authorities to members of Captain James Cook’s voyage, the depositories of the Kunstkamera were enriched by materials which are of special value as they reflect the precontact stage of Polynesian culture. In 1777, naturalist H. Forster, Cook’s crewmate during his second expedition, shipped three Tahitian tapas to St.-Petersburg, and in 1780 the retired Commander of Kamchatka prime-major M. B50102hm brought to St.-Petersburg several dozens of objects from the Pacific islands collected in the course of Cook’s third voyage. Cook’s collections contain cloaks and helmets made of birds’ feathers, which have no counterparts in any foreign museums. Unique specimens include the mantle and the helmet of Kameamea I – the first King of the Hawaii (brought to the Museum in 1810). The Museum possesses three mummified heads of New Zealand chiefs with intricately tattooed faces. They were considered sacred relics among the Maori.

In 1806 a personal donation was made by a Russian seafarer Yu.F. Lisyanskii. In 1826-28, an array of Oceanian artifacts from several early Russian circumnavigations in the first quarter of the 19th century was transferred to the Kunstkamera from the Admiralty Museum. In 1830 the Kunstkamera received a large Micronesian collection assembled by members of Captain F.P. L50108tke’s expedition.

The bulk of the museum’s New Guinean and Melanesian collections are things collected by the famous Russian traveler and naturalist N.N. Miklukho-Maclay. Especially valuable are those from Easter Island – wooden figures and two wooden plates with carved inscriptions, called “kohau rongo-rongo”. (Actually from Polynesia! -ed.)

New Guinean materials include rare wooden, stone, and clay images of Papuan ancestors. There are numerous Melanesian utensils, and a valuable collection of Melanesian masks which were used by members of secret male unions in their rites. There is also a curious collection of shell money from Micronesia and stone money from Yap Island."

Kunstkamera Kava Kava man

Bummer. But there was no lack of other excellent "primitive" art pieces:

...and then, there was the hall of anatomical specimens. Unfortunately, photography was not permitted. :(
I was very tempted to sneak off a couple of shots, but the fact that I had been fined 500 Rubles (about 20 bucks) two days before when photographing a subway station (they are points of strategic interest, as I know now) let me play it safe.
Here is a small sampling of the Frederik Ruysch Collection from their catalog:

"At that time the museum was quite different from the modern Kunstkammer. The first room contained pickled specimens in glass vials: most of them came from the collection of the Dutch anatomist Ruysch bought by Peter the Great during his tour with the Great Embassy. Here one could also see skillfully prepared heads of infants and children, separate parts of human bodies, small animals, birds and other similar strange, odd objects. Next to them two wall cases contained herbariums and a multitude of small cases with exquisite butterflies, animals and beautiful sea-shells. The objects were arranged in compositions to enhance their peculiarities and to show the fleeting nature of human life.
In the next room visitors could see different stages of development of a human embryo in the jars of preserved anatomical specimens, as well as monsters, stuffed elephants and lizards and many items made of ivory. Three other rooms contained various birds and animals, "strange mice with dog faces", a lot of amber, beautiful butterflies and other similarly astounding objects."

Today the the "First natural sciences collections of Kunstkamera” hall has a remarkable display of two-headed man and animal specimens, followed by all sorts of other unusual deformities, together with general specimens, like heads with their brains showing, all preserved in alcohol. Here is one example, whose playful seahorse display on the top of the jar gives one an idea of how Natural Sciences were mixed and matched in these curio chambers:

This was all done in the service of science. So a child's arm...

...would appear in the same display case than a taxidermied Capuccine monkey, or a Pangolin (!?):

Here even I was stumped. I had never seen such an animal, and was fairly convinced to have a "Fiji Mermaid" scam in front of me, but further reasearch showed I had merely been uneducated:

The museum also has a Pre-Columbian sculpture garden:

...and a gift store, which unfortunately has very few Kunstkamera-specific items. I found a T-shirt, and where else would one be able to purchase a Mongoloid-in-a-Jar refrigerator magnet:

All in all, St. Petersburg is an amazing time-warp of a city, which behind its renovated skyline...

...hides block after streetblock of un-altered, authentic buildings...

..with the marks of time showing:

Thanks to Communism, the great preservationist! But to go further in to the city leads us too far away from the subject of Tiki Central, so you will have to see for yourself.

[ Edited by: bigbrotiki 2008-09-07 02:32 ]

virani posted on Sun, Sep 7, 2008 2:40 AM

very interesting reading. Thanks Bigbro.

In further research, I found this anecdote, illustrating that the Utopian dream of finding a place where all men were equal, (which later led to the rise of communism) inspired some Russians to seek Polynesian shores:

"Thus, in the middle of the 19th century a few people from the Saint-Petersburg University's secret youth revolutionary groups announced campaigns in order to collect an adequate sum of money to reach the shore of a blessed island in the Pacific Ocean and to set up a colony there. But, as is likely to happen in cases like these, the money (not a big sum though) was stolen by the swindlers who failed the campaigns. The campaigns were held three times by a few enthusiastic students of Saint-Petersburg University who forgot all about their ideas when they got socially mature.

Here, only one outstanding example can be named. There was a man in the 1850s that graduated from Saint Petersburg University but did not give up his wish to build up a colony of people of equal rights somewhere in the Pacific. He sold all his property and gave up half of his money to the distinguished Russian writers and philosophers who simultaneously lead the so-called revolutionary groups in Russia and abroad. Then the noble man (his name was Pavel Bakhmetev, though it does not matter much) gathered about five thousand votes (only votes, not money) of volunteers who were eager to leave with him for an island in the South Pacific to establish a colony there. Consequently, Bakhmetev took the rest of his money and sailed off to New Zealand. He found the country inappropriate for his colony as it was already inhabited by Europeans who were not very familiar with the ideas of Rousseau and Diderot. From New Zealand the noble Russian man sailed to the Marquesas Islands for the reason that they were less populated by the white people (those were the French, few in number). On his way the ideologically convinced man may have been robbed and murdered, because there have been no mentions of his adventures since."

[ Edited by: bigbrotiki 2008-09-07 03:20 ]


Very interesting and an opportunity to "see inside" the museum through your educated eyes. Thank you. My father recently 'cruised' to St Petersburg, and I have enjoyed many of his photos and films from this amazing city.

We missed you at Taky Tiki :)

Pages: 1 5 replies