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.
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.
The 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 organised 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.
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.
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.
Not 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…