An afternoon at the Kunstkamera in St Petersburg

(Photo credit: Niamh Griffin)

An afternoon at the Kunstkamera museum brings you less gold but more stuffed animals than any other museum in the city. And that’s before you get to the human remains, preserved and displayed in jars in the interests of science.

Founded by Peter the Great, history tells us he was determined to bring his subjects to an understanding of science and illness, even at the expense of losing their dinner at the sight. At the time, the Tsar is said to have said: “I want people to look and learn”.

Whatever about learning, you are unlikely to forget the sight of a perfectly persevered toddler head floating in a large jar – with blue eyes which seem to turn and watch as you walk around the glass cabinet.

The 18th century Dutch scientist Frederik Ruysch – whose work forms much of this collection having been bought by Peter the Great – used to wrap wounds in lace doilies to make them less distasteful according to the museum website. And yes, delicate lace floats around the head in a jar, covering where the child’s neck once was.

Rows of murky-green jars preserve foetal remains – heads, legs, even whole tiny skeletons line the wooden shelves. It’s hard to look at, but even harder to forget.

The display was meant to educate people in understanding that co-joined twins and mal-formed foetal remains were the result of genetic mishaps not curses, but the records don’t tell us how convinced the viewing public was of this.

(Photo credit: Niamh Griffin)

Unlike most other museums in St Petersburg, this was purpose-built as a museum. So it’s easy to follow the trail from the cloakroom in the ground floor up to the anatomical displays, and then into the huge anthropology section.

Row after row of tall displays show stuffed animals, and mannequins dressed in ethnic clothing from around the world. Weapons, food dishes and utensils are placed around the shelves, and there is even a tiny Mongolian yurt.

There is something slightly eerie about walking past these mannequins. But as a reminder that the whole world is not obsessed with social media and wearing the same clothes as Kim Kardashian, it’s certainly thought-provoking.

Research continues today at the museum into the history of people from every corner of the globe including ethnic minorities living in Russia. The online library attached to the museum reflects this multi-culturalism with books like Oriental Dreams: Russian Avant-Garde and the Silks of Bukhara available to read.

At the top of the domed building, the office of 18th-century scientist and poet Mikhail Lomonosov dominates the space, with work-tools and books spread around the room. The deep window recesses give a great view out over the River Neva towards the Hermitage museum.

Inside take your pick of two views of the domed hall; stand on the floor and look up or find the glassless windows on the second level and peer down as students of anatomy once watched scientists dissect bodies.

So yes, a very different kind of museum afternoon, but you may just find you are thinking about the Kunstkamera long after the gold and glitz of the other museums has faded from your memory.

When: Tuesday – Sunday 11:00 – 19:00
Where: Vasilyevsky Island: Metro to Vasileostrovskaya Line 3 or Sportivnaya Line 5
Price: 250 roubles
Language: Russian, English

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