Monthly Archives: March 2018

Peter the Great’s Monsters – The Kunstkamera museum.

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Peter the Great

There’s a scene in Gullimero del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone where a character offers a boy a drink he’s just ladled out of a large glass jar in which a dead, mutated featus is distilled. The featus suffers from ‘the devil’s backbone’, a mutation which causes the spine to protrude from the body. In the film it stands as a metaphor for ‘children who should never have been born’.

 

The Devil’s Backbone joins the ranks of many many gothic horror films in which people (often mad scientists) display featuses or other creatures in liquid filled jars. It’s a trope that is so prevelant in films that it serves as short hand for ‘deranged experimenter’ in contemporary horror and sci fi films.

Growing up with these kind of films I’d always considered this to be some strange phenomenon contained only to the realm of movies. I never put much thought into where the trope came from and certainly didn’t expect to see such things in reality.

Of course that was before I visited the Кунсткамера (Kunstkamera) museum in St Petersburg.

 

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View of Кунсткамера across the frozen River Neva

 

Кунсткамера, sometimes accurately described as a cabinate of cultural oddities, was the very first museum in Saint Petersburg. Established by Peter the Great, the museum was part of a project to educate the population. Peter saw the Кунсткамера as a means of preserving and feeding humanity’s natural sense of curiosity.

Since its completion in 1727 the museum has seen countless exhibitions and items added to its now world famous collection. It’s impressive in its scale, beautiful in its presentation and, at times, plain odd in its content.

Upon entering the museum we were greeted by a huge, wooden statue of some unknown, bizarrely well endowed mutant, demon, god or something else. As an indicator of what was to come I think it served its purpose well.

a90a0b5cb568e7ea4db367e76b373ab1The first few floors of the museum are dedicated to the anthropology and ethnology collections. Most, if not all, major cultures are represented here in huge floor to ceiling glass cabinets that house tools, weapons, clothes, crafts and an endless assortment of other artifacts. The displays are images5RZ03OLLorganised in such a way as to give a sense of life. Manquines are positioned and dressed in day to day postures and all related objects are arranged around them. The result can seem less like a display and more like an artist’s impression. The scope of the museum seems endless and although the displays are relatively compact they’re dense with information and things to see. Among my favorite displays were a section on oral hygiene in African tribes, a discourse on kathakali Theatre and a miniature reconstruction of a traditional Indonesian Village.

‘But that,’ one of my Russian colleges cut in as I was describing the museum to a friend, ‘is not the most interesting part’. And she’s right.

The most interesting part, or at least the most notorious part, is the third floor excibit Monsters. This is where one can find displays lined with countless glass jars containing malformed foetus’ both human and otherwise. It’s like being on set at a mad genius’ deprived laboratory. Two faced babies stare out with four glassy eyes. Decapitated heads and bodies with overgrown tumors and missing limbs float lifelessly. The devil’s backbone abounds. It’s gruesome stuff for sure.

But why? Peter the Great was a student of all walks of life, fueled by an endless curiosity and lust for knowledge. Along his journeys he developed a fascination with biology and was particularly taken with the research of Frederik Ruysch who was an anatomist and artist.

 

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Frederik Ruysch

Ruysch was looking for ways to perfectly preserve dead bodies and found a way to do so by injecting hot, red stained wax into the blood vessels which, when cooled, gave the subject a very lifelike appearance. The eyes were removed and replaced with glass. Later in his career he replaced the wax with a special liquid which kept the bodies flexible rather than ridged and he preserved them in a clear liquid he called liquor balsamicus. Being an artist as well as a scientist Ruysch embellished his works with flowers, patterns, lace and other materials which his daughter helped him with. He’s notorious for using the bodies in his artwork, arranging them and incorporating body parts into his displays.

 

The picture below is an artist’s reproduction of one of his real works in which he positioned the (real) skeletons of babies standing on a bed of (real) organs and surrounded by trees of (real) dried blood vessels.

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These works have at times gained a reputation of being distasteful and macabre, although Ruysch didn’t see them that way, and nor did Peter the Great. In fact, Peter encouraged this kind of reseach into deformities and abnormalities, having all manner of still-born babies delivered from over the world to be added to his collection. In displaying them he sought to discourage superstitious beliefs that such deformities were the product of supernatural or demonic intervention. He wanted to show that these ‘monsters’ we’re just unfortunate creatures, victims of natural biological problems.

photo4jpgNot everything in the collection necessarily adhires to this noble goal but more to the time’s obsession with abnormal bodies as fashion. Proudly displayed are the skeleton and heart of Peter’s favourite giant Nikolay Bourjois. The heart, I kid you not, is as large as my head.

To go into detail about any of the Кунсткамера’s exhibitions would be a fool’s errand because there is simply so much to digest. The museum feels incredibly dense whilst at the same time comfortable and welcoming. The atmosphere is much more relaxed than in other museums such as the Hermitage for example, and although the collection is huge it’s never overwhelming and, thanks to the organisation which guides you through at a good pace, never boring.

From the impressively hung doorman to the cultural oddities and dead babies. I highly recommend Кунсткамера as a day well spent. Only, consider eating a light lunch before venturing towards the third floor…

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Museum of Soviet Archade Machines

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IMG_20171210_144419There’s something special about a game arcade, isn’t there? So many people have fond memories of shoveling coins onto bulky machines to play their favourite game, to beat their high-score or to compete with others, whether it be a friend or a name on the scoreboard.

In American movies the arcade serves as a symbol of childhood, nostalgia and growth. They often stand in as a representation of an innocent or iconic society before the film’s hero embarks on their journey into a more treacherous and cut-throat world.

It’s no surprise that arcades carry such meaning, as at the height of their popularity they balanced comfortably between technical innovation and wholesome entertainment. In many ways they helped define a generation while at the same time propelling the world of gaming into the future.

When I imagine an arcade the prevailing image that comes to me is informed by retro American pictures or those banking on the retro image. The Last Starfighter, Tron and Stranger Things. Perhaps for some it invokes a more modern image of high-tech Tokyo arcades with all their lights, elite customers and pop-culture heroes.IMG_20171210_133003

Whatever the word arcade makes you think of I would be willing to bet that it doesn’t include lines of excited children during the era of the USSR queuing up to play the latest and greatest games.

But this is exactly the image that a visit to the Museum of Soviet Arcade machines, located on Konyushennaya square in St Petersburg, invokes. Here you can find all manner of retro arcade machines from those with super basic design and graphics to the mind boggling complex.

IMG_20171210_141931Wandering through the arcade was like taking a crash course in the history of game design. Among the oldest designs we found machines that run pong and variations of it using 1 bit graphics, and also a phenomenally fun racing game called чемпион-м (Champion-M).

From there we made our way through the roughly assembled catalogue, testing various racing games, a side-scrolling adventure game called Снежная Королева (Snow Queen) which was a bit like a Soviet Zelda, and a whole host of ‘table top games’ like table basketball, hockey and, of course, football.

My favourite machine was the impressive торпида атака (Torpedo attack) which used the technical limitations of the time in such an impressive and inventive way that I couldn’t help be impressed even by today’s standards. Using a blend of lights, cardboard cut outs and sound it manages to be incredibly innovative while beautifully retro. The game is this: You look down into a periscope which in turn aims out at the playing field. In the distance small ships sail out, silhouetted against a backlit sky. Your job is to track them and, when they’re in your sights, pull the trigger. This sends an underwater torpedo, represented by a line of red light, shooting from the front of the machine’s playing field to the back where the ship will explode by dropping out of view as the sky behind it flashes a harsh red. It’s a wonderfully straight forward game made with simple technology but it blends the game concept with hardware in a way that very few games do nowadays. By making you look down through the periscope instead of directly at the field it immerses you in the game’s world and by using three physical dimensions (as opposed to the three digital dimensions of modern games) it gives the game weight and makes the distance between yourself and the targets feel more real.

The best thing about the museum is the way in which the vintage machines are displayed. Like ‘arcade’ the word museum conjures certain images and preconceptions too. On the way I had assumed the museum would be a ‘look but don’t touch’ type affair, but there are no such IMG_20171210_135709rules here; no display cases, cabinets or fences. The machines here aren’t only collected and preserved but they’re kept alive and working. Here, the word museum is used in the loosest of ways. What’s fantastic is that it’s not only geeks and pop-culture historians that visit the museum. While I was there the place was jam packed with kids and young people all playing the games without any care that they came from a different era. This is a place that young people actively come to hang out. There’s even a large screen which, at the time, was showing a bizarre Soviet Tom & Jerry knock off but was looking forward to a Studio Ghibli season.

Something I love about video games is that they seem to capture the essence of the time in which they were made. If you look at a game made 30 years ago in comparison to a recent one, more often than not they’re incomparable. They’re like time in a bottle. The museum of Soviet Arcade Machines doesn’t just take the bottle and stick it on a shelf to be admired, it uncorks it and offers you a drink.

If you ever find yourself in a Russian city with one of these museums and have either an interest in retro games or a group of young people to entertain be sure to check it out.

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