“Five fetuses on a placenta”: Adventures in the Kuntskamera

So, during the first two weeks of the program here we have our “Russian Language Intensive” classes from 11-2:30 every day, which leaves a lot of time in the afternoon for exploring the city. The past few days I’ve been picking different areas on the map to explore on foot, but yesterday afternoon I was just too tired of walking around in the cold, so I decided to stop in at the Museum of Ethnography and Anthropology, also known as the Kuntskamera. It is the oldest museum in Petersburg, and possibly the oldest in Russia: It was founded by Peter the Great in 1719. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

It was originally Peter’s “Cabinet of Curiostities,” where he displayed strange and interesting things from around the world. Today’s museum contains some of Peter’s original collection, which I will get to in a minute.

The beginning of my tour of the museum was normal, essentially what one would expect an anthropological museum to be: I wandered in first to an exhibit on Inuit culture, then on to other Native American cultures, and through rooms on Japan, India, China, Nepal, Senegal, Iran, etc., etc. The exhibits had varying levels of English explanations, which at times required me to break out my pocket dictionary to look up phrases like “made from the intestines of sea mammals.” The exhibits also displayed varying levels of cultural sensitivity. Political correctness does not seem to be as important here, but that is a topic for a different post.  Suffice to say that the tone of some of the exhibits was often what one might expect from 19th/early 20th century Western anthropologists.

After exploring these exhibits, I wandered in to the room displaying parts of Peter the Great’s original “Cabinet of Curiosities.” And boy, was I not prepared. I might let Wikipedia describe this for me:

“Peter’s museum was a cabinet of curiosities dedicated to preserving “natural and human curiosities and rarities”, a very typical type of collection in the period. The tsar’s personal collection, originally stored in the Summer Palace, features a large assortment of human and animal fetuses with anatomical deficiencies, which Peter had seen in 1697 visitingFrederick Ruysch and Levinus Vincent.”

Yep, you heard that right. Cabinets upon cabinets of malformed human fetuses (and other body parts) in jars. It was a lot to take in.

What distracted me from some of the gruesomeness, though, was the interesting way in which these fetuses were displayed. I guess one of the museum planners thought that row upon row of pickled fetuses and infants would be too much to take in all at once, so among the jars were a number of seemingly random other specimens. This made for very interesting, weirdly poetic exhibit descriptions. I wrote down some of my favorites:

“Fetus with a double brain hernia. White fish. Fetus with fused legs (sirenomelus)”

“Double-faced monster with brain hernia. Opossum.”

“ Starfish from tropical seas and stuffed echidna. Cyclops piglet and Cyclops infant.”

“Colony of gorgonaria, tropical Atlantic. Children’s legs.”

And, finally, the one that will be haunting my nightmares for weeks:

“Preparation of a Surinamese pipa. Preparation of a child’s head with artificial eyes.”

Needless to say, I did not take pictures.

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2 thoughts on ““Five fetuses on a placenta”: Adventures in the Kuntskamera

  1. I’m thinking the stamp collecting that mom and granddaddy did was a more civilized hobby. Sounds like you’re on quite the adventure! Love. Aunt heather

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