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Medical curiosities draw visitors to St. Petersburg

By Catholic Online
October 11th, 2010
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

On the third floor of St Petersburg's Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology is the Kunstkamera, containing a stunning array of medical and physical curiosities. Encephalitis-swollen skulls, abnormal skeletons to the specimen tumors documented meticulously by Peter the Great are all on display in Peter's first state museum, founded in 1714.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The collection was never intended to be a freak show. As part of Peter's broader push to modernize Russia, the collection was in fact an attempt to reduce superstition. It was hoped that cataloging debilitating diseases and quirks of nature would quell superstitious beliefs that blamed misfortune on demons and monsters.

The museum is 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 visiting Frederick Ruysch and Levinus Vincent.

The Kunstkamera of Peter the Great is often seen as a catch-all collection of oddities, but it seems they were collected systematically subject to a well defined plan. Peter's main interest was in "naturalia", rather than the so-called "artificialia". Peter encouraged research of deformities, all along trying to debunk the superstitious fear of monsters.

Many items were bought in Amsterdam from pharmacologist Albertus Seba and anatomist Frederik Ruysch and formed the basis for the Academy of Sciences. The Kunstkamera was specially built to house these two extensive collections. A third acquisition came from Jacob de Wilde, a collector of gems and scientific instruments. Head-physician to the czar, Robert Erskine, and his secretary Johann Daniel Schumacher were responsible for the acquisition.

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