© 2000, Annual Reports of the Zoological Institute RAS.

To the history of the Zoological Museum. The history of the site. Exhibition at the beginning of the 20th century

Nadezhda V. Slepkova

Zoological Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, Universitetskaya nab., 1, St. Petersburg, 199034, Russia

The Zoological Museum has occupied a building situated in the southeastern corner of the Spit of the Vasilievskii Island for about 100 years. One hundred years ago its exhibition was totally reorganized. This reorganization started a new period in the history of the part of the Museum that is intended for the public. Preparing for the celebration of this anniversary we looked for material about the history of the site where our buildings are located and for information about what our Museum looked like at the beginning of the 20th century.

The building of the Institute part of which is the Zoological Museum now never was the object of monographic historical and architectural description. Apart from literature we studied materials of several archives such as the Archives of the Committee of The State Inspection of Protection of the Monuments (CSIPM St. Pb.), State Archives of Film and Photographic Documents of St. Petersburg (SAFPD St. Pb.), Archives of postcards of the State Museum of the History of St. Petersburg (SMH St. Pb.), Archives of the Zoological Institute RAS (ZIN RAS), Funds of the Prints Department of the Russian State Library (PD RSL).

The history of the site

The first buildings erected in 1707 on the site of the Institute were wind sawmills, where the planks for ships were prepared (Stolpyanskii, 1915). In the early 18th century in 1716 on the place, where the administrative building of the Zoological Institute is now located, the construction of the palace for the Tsarina Praskovya Fedorovna was started (Semevskii, 1883). Tsarina Praskovya Fedorovna Romanova, maiden name Saltykova (1664-1723) was a widow of the tsar Ivan V - the brother of Peter I and the mother of the Empress Anna Ioannovna. In 1723 Tsarina Praskovya died in this palace and was buried in the Annunciation Church in Alexandro-Nevskaya Laura (Semevskii, 1883).

In 1725 the unfinished palace was given to the Imperial Academy of Sciences (Bunin, 1948). It was totally completed only in 1734 (Stolpyanskii, 1925). The Academy of Sciences occupied this building until 1825. The history of the Academy in its early years was associated with the names of such prominent scientists as D. Bernuly, L. Euler, G. Miller, Ch. Golbach, G. Delill and others. Among Russian scientists M.V. Lomonosov and A.K. Nartov were the members of the Academy at that time. This building was the place where scientific books were printed and where the first Russian newspaper "Sankt-Peterburgskiye vedomosti" was issued (History of the Academy, 1958). A picture of the building of the Academy is known from some publications (Palaty..., 1741; Stolpyanskii, 1925). It is also known from the famous engravings by M.I. Makhaev (Malinovskii, 1978). This building existed until 1826 when it was dismantled (Bunin, 1948).

Our attempts to find any pictures of the early 19th century site led us to several drawings presenting fictional images of a three-storied building in a classical style with porticos in the middle, situated on the site of the former palace of Tsarina Praskovya (Timofeev, 1903; History of the Academy, 1964; Shuiskii, 1989, 1995). These pictures originated from design drawings of the unrealized reconstruction project of the buildings on the Neva embankment, for the needs of Academy, by the prominent Russian architect Andrean Zakharov. They date to about 1802 (Shuiskii, 1995). These design drawings are characterized by the connection of our building to the Kunstkammer building.

Thus, the first building of our Institute site occupied the place where the administrative block is now located. The rest of the area that is occupied now by the part of the building with the exhibition, was covered by a deep permanent water pool. It can be seen on the plans of the city until the first quarter of the 19th century (Nemirov, 1893; Bunin, 1953).

In 1825-1828 the territory was reconstructed under the leadership of the architect I.F. Lukini and generally acquired its modern appearance (CSIPM St. Pb. a). One of the most exciting facts is that the building we commonly call "The former Southern Customs Warehouse" was not one but three different buildings. They became connected in time (Nikitin, 1978). One of them was the House of Customs Staff (administrative block now), another - the Exhibition Hall (showroom) (the part where the whales are exhibited now), and the rest was the Southern Customs Warehouse proper (laboratory block). In the beginning the two-storied building of the customs warehouse had no connection with the Exhibition Hall. Later in 1832 two doors were made from the Exhibition Hall to the Customs Warehouse. From archives we know that the cost of this work was 1265 rubles (CSIPM St. Pb. b).

The most interesting history is that of the Exhibition Hall. Nikitin (1982) suggests it was the first building in the world specially constructed for industrial exhibitions. The building was erected on the request of the Ministry of Finance Count E.F. Kankrin (Nikitin, 1982). The First All - Russian Industrial (manufactory - as it was then called) Exhibition of 1829 involved several rooms of the House of Customs Staff (Anonymous, 1829). Later on the Exhibition Hall was connected with the customs warehouse by two doors. Six large exhibitions of the same level were housed in this building in 1829, 1833, 1839, 1841, 1850, and 1861 (Nikitin, 1982). Sometimes the Customs department used the Exhibition Hall for exhibitions of confiscated goods (Nikitin, 1982). It seems important to mention that due to the organization of the manufacture exhibitions, which required large areas, the building appeared to be suitable for a zoological exhibition.

According to some printed sources there was a mosque in the Exhibition Hall in 1830 (Stolpyanskii, 1915; Bunin, 1948). Another source states that a mosque was only planned (P.M.B., 1895). Nevertheless at the beginning of the 20th century the Exhibition Hall was called "mosque". This was the name mentioned by director V.V. Zalenskii when he showed the exhibition of whales in the new museum to the reporter of the journal Niva in 1901 (Frey, 1901).

For some time our buildings were used by the classes of the Painting School for free comers. This school is historically connected with the St. Petersburg Art College now named after N.K. Rerich. It was founded in November 1839 (Sobko, 1889; Anonymous 1993). Care for the organization of the school was taken by Count E.F. Kankrin and by the Doctor of Philosophy Councilor of State K.Ch. Reissig (Sobko, 1889) - a person of many talents, the author of the manual for painting and drawing (Reissig, 1840, 1843) and of the first atlas of constellations in Russia. From March 1840 until 1956 it occupied some rooms of the House of the Customs Staff and periodically used the Exhibition Hall (Nikitin, 1978). In 1956 it was passed to the Society for the Encouragement of Artists. In 1860-1878 the Painting School used as well the Exhibition Hall (Stolpyanskii, 1915; Nikitin, 1978; Nikitenko & Sobol, 1999). During the exhibition of 1861 the School had to occupy a private flat (Makarenko, 1914). In 1878 the Society for the Encouragement of Artists received its own building (Sobko, 1889). Among the students of this School were such prominent Russian artists as V.I. Surikov, V.V. Vereshchagin, I.E. Repin, among the teachers - I.N. Kramskoi, P.K. Klodt (Makarenko, 1914; Nikitenko & Sobol, 1999). Such prominent names as P. Chistyakov, N. Kramskoi are connected with the history of the school. This School also started F. Vasiliev, M. Vrubel, I. Shishkin and many others on their way as artists (Anonymous, 1993).

This brief essay of the history of the site now used by the Zoological Institute shows that it includes a period when it belonged to the Academy of Sciences on the one hand and was the place for exhibitions with large exhibition areas on the other. All this led to the idea of using it for Zoological exhibition.

The buildings at the disposal of the Zoological Museum

When St. Petersburg's port was moved to Gutuevskii Island some of the buildings in the southeastern corner of the Spit of Vasilievskii Island, two-storied Customs Warehouse and Exhibition Hall, became empty. They were "the refuge for hordes of rats and countless numbers of pigeons" (P.M.B., 1895). In 1891 these two parts were given to the Zoological Museum located at that time not far from this place in the "Museum wing" (the edict was signed by the Emperor in 22.03: Imperatorskaya Akademiya..., 1917). The major efforts for the fulfillment of this idea made the Head of the Academy of Sciences of that time Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich (Sobolev, 1993).

All the work for the reconstruction of the building was conducted under the supervision of the architect R.R. Marfeld (1852-1921) in 1894-1895 (Lenskaya, 1986). Facade, interiors and staircases were reconstructed. The windows of the second floor were enlarged on the facade looking towards the Rostral Column. The staircase to the second floor of the Exhibition Hall was added (CSIPM St. Pb. c). The appearance of the facade of the building is known from different photos, for example of Bulla (SAFPD St. Pb. a; Frey, 1901). Architecture of facade has been restored since that time, and now it has the same appearance as it was constructed by architect I.F. Lukini, not R.R. Marfeld. In 1896-1901 the Museum was equipped inside. The work was performed under the supervision of the special "Commission for Inner Reconstruction" headed first by the director of the Museum F.D. Pleske and then by V.V. Zalenskii (Anonymous, 1898). In 1901 6/19 February the renewed exhibition was opened to the public. Emperor Nicholas II, the whole court, ministers and all members of the Academy took part in the ceremony of the opening (Slepkova, 1999).

What did the Museum look like at the beginning of the 20th century inside? We know several photographs of the Museum from publications of that time in the journals Niva, Novii Mir, Guidebook (Frey, 1901; Pavlovskii, 1901; Guide..., 1904), from archive photographs and from postcards (PD RSL, SMH St. Pb). From several archive photos we know what the interiors looked like immediately after reconstruction without exhibits. The first room still has the same appearance. The member of the Commission for the Reconstruction of the building V.P. Bonch-Osmolovskii presented these photos to another member - senior zoologist E.A. Bichner (ZIN RAS).

We have collected to date about 60 different views of museum interiors and exhibitions demonstrating 40 different spots of Museum (25 biological groups among them and the rest are the views of the systematic collection). The authors of these photographs were Karl Bulla, P.S. Radezkii, and I.I. Panov. About 50 photographs were found in the State Archives of Film and Photographic Documents, some subjects are known only from photos by P.S. Radezkii published on postcards, produced by the publishing house of the Community of the Sisters of Mercy of St. Eugenia. The most complete collection of these photos - 23 postcards - all mentioned in the catalogue of published postcards (Anonymous, 1915) is preserved in Archives of SMH St. Pb., a smaller one in RSL. Some unique subjects are known only from the Guidebook illustrated by I.I. Panov (Guide..., 1904).

According to these photos the arched ceiling of the Museum was decorated with ornament. Blinds with an ornament of royal lilies covered the windows (Slepkova, 1999). There were wooden chairs and sofas in the showrooms of the Museum (SAFPD St. Pb. b) that still can be seen in some rooms of the Institute. The exhibition was composed of a systematics collection and biological groups (dioramas) as it is now.

Comparison of the photos with the modern exhibition shows that most of the stuffed animals are still present in the exhibition now, but that decorations were changed in most cases. Some exhibitions such as "A Nesting Heron" (SAFPD St. Pb. c) were destroyed by time. Many exhibitions have had to change their positions and decoration. Some slightly differ from what they were at the beginning of the century. The only example of a biological group that did not undergo any kind of reconstruction is "The Birds of the Marshy Lake Shore" (SAFPD St. Pb. d).

As a whole the exhibitions at the beginning of the century were done mainly in winter surroundings or with modest artistic means, not surprising given that all the exhibitions were done in a few years. In a publication of the newspaper "Novoe vremya" one of the biological groups was named "A Group of Animals Among Artistic Decoration" (Novoe vremya, 1901). It may be that this was a suitable name for the new idea to show animals in dynamic poses and in natural surroundings, which was realised in the new exhibition. Ecological ideas were fully developed later. For example, there were some mistakes in biological groups at that time. Mainly young animals were shown with their parents in idyllic scenes that can never be witnessed in nature, for example polar bears, deer and others. Animals with coat coloration of different seasons were shown in one group (arctic foxes). Sometimes the animals were grouped geographically such as wolfs, cats and tigers from the Far East. The evolution of the exhibition of biological groups proceeded in an ecological direction. It became more aesthetic in these 100 years as well.

As can be seen from the Museum Reports (Anonymous, 1901) and from the guidebooks (Guide..., 1901, 1904) there were numerous anatomical and anatomo-embryological items shown with models or pictures, many skeletons that were removed from the exhibition during the past 100 years. As a whole, the exhibition at the beginning of the century showed the level of zoological knowledge of that time. It is essential to mention that the main principle of our modern exhibition - combination of a systematic collection with biological groups - was established at that time. As a whole the exhibition of 1901 was a giant step towards the needs of the public and towards the needs of zoological education. It comprises an epoch in the development of zoological exposition.


I would like to thank the administration of the Institute and of the Museum for the support of my work, the staff of the State Archives of Film and Photographic Documents of St. Petersburg, Dr. B.K. Shuiskii from the Scientific Museum of the Academy of Arts, Dr. S.D. Stepanjants and the guides of our museum E.E. Tuchkina and T.I. Blumenthal for their kind assistance.


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Anonymous. 1915. Otkrytie pisma i drugie khudozhestvennye izdaniya obshchiny sv. Evgenii Krasnogo kresta. Spravochnyi ukazatel… [Postcards and other artistic issues of the Community of St. Eugenia of the Red Cross. Check List…]. 6th edn. Petrograd. 364 pp. (In Russian).

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CSIPM St. Pb. b. Ibid., list 13.

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