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Kunstkamera: a Museum or a Freak Show?

The Kunstkamera was established as the first museum of Russia by Tsar Peter I in 1718 in Petersburg on the River Neva across from the Winter Palace. Heavily influenced by 18th century romanticism and Dutch scientific methods, Peter began taking interest in the natural sciences, or naturalia.

By 1714, Peter had accumulated a collection of scientific instruments, journals, books and strange specimens from his trips abroad, which he incorporated into the museum’s initial exhibits after outgrowing the limited space in the Summer Palace. The museum grew in the 1720’s, and contained thousands of preserved human embryos, human anatomical parts, over 1,500 preserved animals and insects, and over 15,000 books. Peter envisioned a facility that would function as a “library, museum, anatomical theater, scientific research center, and astronomical observatory in one state-of-the-art center,” (Anemone, 585). This institution was an integral part of Peter’s plan to westernize Russia, in that prior to the Kunstkamera’s inception, Russia had no museums or cultural centers.


Skeleton of Siamese Twins from Frederik Ruysch's Collection

Many items were imported from the Netherlands, and in 1717 Peter purchased the anatomical and zoological collection of Dutch scientist and embalmer, Frederik Ruysch. This purchase brought to the Kunstkamera a number of animal, plant and mineral specimens that had been collected over a period of 70 years. The most notable part of the new collection was the anatomical specimens, which included body parts and even entire fetuses carefully preserved. The museum also housed exhibits featuring live people and animals, all with some sort of defect. These types of “freak shows” were not just for amusement, but played an important role in the scientific community, which at the time was still theorizing on methods of conception. The museum removed its “living exhibits” in 1746, and focus shifted towards posthumous scientific investigations. Still open today, the Kunstkamera has many of the initial scientific specimens and exhibits that were initially implemented during Peter’s reign.

Lindsay Rubio and Jan-Pieter Verheul


Questions for disucssion in class:

1. Was Peter’s plan to westernize Russia successful through establishment of the Kunstkamera?
2. What were the reactions of Russians who, prior to the creation of the Kunstkamera, had never been to a museum or had limited knowledge of science?


Works Cites and Consulted:

Anemone, Anthony. “The Monsters of Peter the Great: The Culture of the St. Petersburg Kunstkamera in the Eighteenth Century,” The Slavic and Eastern European Journal, Vol. 44, No. 4, (2000): 583-602.

Kunstkamera. Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology.

Preserved FetusesPreserved FetusesTwo-Headed Animals

Preserved Fetuses

By Regina Root

Regina A. Root is Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies.