Tuesday, 7 February 2017

GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY AT THE ST. PETERSBURG ZOOLOGICAL MUSEUM

MUSINGS ABROAD

BY: STEPHANIE READ

Calling all natural history lovers to another installment of Musings Abroad! This post takes us to another cultural landmark of regal St. Petersburg, the Zoological Museum. Located on the Eastern tip of Vasilyevsky Island facing the Winter Palace along the Neva River, the Zoological Museum is one of the largest Natural History Museums in the world. The Museum serves not only as a testament to the diversity and beauty of the fauna of this world, but also to the evolution of the taxidermy and display of animal specimens.

Looking South toward the entrance to the Zoological Museum. Note the whale skeletons and collection of seals and walrus species. Photo credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.
The Zoological collection was originally an offshoot of Peter the Great's cabinet (read: mega warehouse) of curiosities. Collecting has been ongoing since the early 18th century. Below is a sample of taxidermied pets of Peter the Great from the same time period, situated near the entrance of the museum. It certainly brings attention to the evolution of taxidermy! (Note: Peter the Great also preserved the body of his friend, the French giant Nicholas Bourgeois, however to posterity's slightly less horrified relief,  he decided to keep Bourgeois's skeleton rather than stuff him).

Peter the Great's pets in the Entrance Hall. Photo credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.
 As you can see, these early examples of taxidermy are straight up frightening.. unless this was some breed of puppet-horse that I am not aware exists...

Ghoulish examples of early taxidermy at the Zoological Museum! Photo credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.
As we came into the Main Hall, I was started to see dozens of children dressed in all combinations of black and white rushing up the stairs. The boys were nattily dressed in formal black slacks and white shirts. The girls' hair were often intricately braided and decorated with massive white pompoms or plastic flowers. Apparently this is the dress code for school children on the Day of Learning, that is their first day back to school. Many children spend their first day back visiting museums in their city.

Children visiting the museum on Learning Day. Photo credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.
The Zoological Museum has an informal, laid-back atmosphere. As you can see below, various plants occupied the stairwells and corners. I hardly saw any attendants, and I did not see any security guards. However, the space had a lived-in feel, which is not surprising as the Museum is in fact an appendage of the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The building, completed in 1832, originally functioned as a warehouse for the city's stock exchange. It is built in the Greek Revival style, which took the architecture scene of St. Petersburg by storm in the early 19th century.
A woman watering the plants in the stairwell. Photo credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.
The Museum boasts a vast collection of insects, mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and invertebrates. It is, for all intents and purposes, an example of the traditional, encyclopedic Natural History museum. The labels do not have an overall internal integrity. The Museum bothers not with more contemporary interpretive strategies or interactive elements, preferring to present the collection in such a way that the visitor is awed and overwhelmed by its breadth.

The upper floor of the Main Hall, devoted to all types of insects. Photo credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.
I was hoping to find this Death's Head moth among the critters. Note the display of caterpillars and cocoons as well. Photo credit: Stephanie Read, 2016/
Some specimens getting some fresh air. Photo credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.
 Upon exiting the Main Hall, I entered a labyrinthine space, a single tunnel extending toward the horizon however long we walked. I felt as if I were on a subway platform inexplicably filled with animals and complex dioramas. Oh, the dioramas! They are like nothing I had ever seen: Eagles swooped over their massive nests; wolf pups tumbled over each other and tore at the carcass of a young deer; vultures scratched and bit at the body of a wild dog. These dioramas were like the insinuated scenes of Disney movies. I half expected to see old Scar being devoured by hyenas. All of these were at times juxtaposed with adorable and mundane scenes of a lumbering pair of old tortoises or a waddle of penguins. For what it's worth, the children seemed to love the dioramas.

In the diorama tunnel. Photo credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.
The diorama tunnel is not for the faint of heart! Photo credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.
A pretty beat-up and scruffy opossum- a Disney movie villain in it's own right.. Photo credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.
This mammoth fell off a cliff. It is the only stuffed and mounted adult specimen of its kind, and even swaths of its hair have been preserved over millennia. Photo credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.
These saiga antelope's live cousins are crtitically endangered. They used to thrive in the Eurasian Steppe, but now are found in Russia and parts of Kazhakstan. It amazes me that such strange looking creatures still exist today. I could not tell if the label addresses their endangered status. Photo credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.
Only a few English labels accompanied select specimens, such as the woolly mammoth. For the most part, however, I was unable to understand the labels. Therefore, I appreciated the Museum from an aesthetic perspective. I would have liked to know, foe example, whether the issues of hunting and collection and their impact on the environment had been addressed in any way.

 In fact, the experience would be much like poring over a book of animal specimens, if it were not for the fearsome yet wonderfully crafted dioramas. That being said, I hope when I someday return that the Museum will have adopted some interactive and interpretive strategies. For starters, the labels could include stickers or symbols signifying whether the species in question were vulnerable, near extinction or extinct.

A Chinese water deer. I was surprised to learn that they still exist. Photo credit: Stephanie Read, 2016.
This concludes the February installment of Musings Abroad. Join me next month in Moscow for a visit of the world-renowned State Tretyakov Gallery!

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