Once a month on the Molten Sulfur Blog, we have a post taken from our book Archive: Historical People, Places, and Events for RPGs. This post, about a remarkable Russian museum, is one of eighty entries in Archive, each more gameable than the last!
Home of the Tsar's Curiosities
The Kunstkamera is Russia’s first museum, founded in 1718 to hold the personal collection of Tsar Peter the Great. It has since expanded further. The Kunstkamera was an integral part of Peter’s plan to create the image of a changing Russia. The Tsar had the habit of happily receiving ambassadors and important guests in his museum, and a tour of the museum was part of the visit program for all distinguished visitors. In doing this, he gave the impression that Russia was a modern state, interested in expanding knowledge and understanding other cultures.
The collection was established in 1714, four years before the museum's founding, when Peter moved his accumulation of scientific bric-à-brac to Saint Petersburg, the eventual site of the museum. This collection included scientific instruments, journals, books, and strange specimens from the Tsar’s trips abroad. In 1717, Peter bought the anatomical and zoological collection of a Dutch scientist and embalmer. This purchase gave the Kunstkamera animal, plant, and mineral specimens gathered over 70 years. Most popular among this new collection were the anatomical specimens, including body parts and even entire fetuses carefully preserved. One of the specimens from this collection is a small skeleton of Siamese twins who died in infancy.
Modified from original by Alex ‘Florstein’ Fedorov. Released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
By the 1720s, the museum was growing, and it already contained thousands of preserved human embryos, human anatomical parts, over 1,500 preserved animals and insects, and over 15,000 books. Peter desired a facility that was a blend of library, museum, anatomical theater, scientific research center, and astronomical observatory, all in one place. In 1724, the Kunstkamera was adopted by the Academy of Sciences and transformed into a multifaceted museum. Three years later, a single building was designed and built for the collections and they were all relocated there.
The Kunstkamera was also partially a freak show, as it contained exhibits featuring live people and animals suffering from physical defects. Though abhorrent to modern sensibilities, the ‘living exhibits’ were valuable. Biological science was in its infancy, and scholars could learn much about how the body was supposed to work by studying what happened when it went wrong. The Kunstkamera removed its living exhibits in 1746. As the museum’s collection continued to grow, the Kunstkamera had to be separated into a number of independent museums in the 1830s, organized by subject. These separate museums covered the subjects of anatomy, ethnography, botany, and zoology. The Kunstkamera is still open today, and has many scientific specimens and exhibits first shown during Tsar Peter’s reign.
Kunstkamera in Play
In a campaign, a place like the Kunstkamera could be an intriguing location to put a plot item the PCs need. In a twist, the item may be in the possession of one of the ‘living exhibits’. Alternately, villains could be running a slave trafficking ring through the freak show, veiled by the legitimacy of the museum. PCs searching for a kidnapped NPC could find her there. The party could be hired to guard the museum from a thief with unconventional taste in valuables. Or they could be hired by a foreign power to ruin one of Tsar Peter’s official tours so Russia looks backwards and incompetent. And any one of these could be combined with the idea – ripped straight from the silver screen – that the exhibits come to life at night. Given the medical focus of much of the collection, the effect is more likely to be horrific than comedic.