Just a few days ago while staying with our friend Mia in Finland, she mentioned that someone she knew had seen a gruesome collection of dead babies in jars while on a trip to St. Petersburg. This seemed outlandish to us, but as Tara was flipping through the city guidebook I bought in a flea market in Berlin, she suddenly exclaimed, "I found it!"
Our morbid curiosity got the better of us, and we set off for an afternoon in one of the oldest museums in the world. Located in the heart of St. Petersburg, it goes by the lengthy name of Kunstkamera: Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Not only does it preserve a collection of artifacts from around the world, but it also has on display its very own first natural science exhibition from the 1700s. In this way, it shows off the history of the museum itself, similar to the Pitt-Rivers exhibit at the Oxford Museum of Natural History (our favorite of the trip so far).
In the 18th century, Peter the Great bought this collection of preparations from the famous anatomist Frederik Ruysch. Apparently the gruesome body parts were preserved in brandy(!), using various spices(!!) to keep the natural colors intact.I was disappointed to discover that it was the only exhibit in the museum where photos were not allowed. Of course, I took some anyway (while Tara wandered around and pretended she didn't know me). The pictures aren't great, but they were the best I could covertly manage.
Tara's Warning: these photos are gruesome and disturbing. If the sight of severed baby heads and fetal abnormalities is not something you can stomach, do not click the link below.
Apparently, Peter the Great encouraged the research of these deformities in a crusade to debunk the superstitious fear of monsters that was prevalent in his era. He even went so far as to issue a decree that all still-born infants born in the country were to be sent to the imperial collection. Many of them are now a part of the exhibit above. Pretty gruesome!