Also known as the Museum of Ethnology and Anthropology, the Kunstkamera is the city’s first museum and was founded in 1714 by Peter himself. It is famous largely for its ghoulish collection of monstrosities, preserved ‘freaks’, two-headed mutant foetuses, deformed animals and odd body parts, all collected by Peter with the aim of educating the notoriously superstitious Russian people. While most rush to see these sad specimens, there are also very interesting exhibitions on native peoples from around the world.
Peter's aim in setting up the museum was to demonstrate that the malformations were not the result of the evil eye or sorcery, but rather caused by ‘internal damage as well as fear and the beliefs of the mother during pregnancy’ – a marginally more enlightened view. This fascinating place is an essential St Petersburg sight, although not one for the faint-hearted. Think twice about bringing young children here and definitely give Kunstkamera a wide berth if you are pregnant yourself. Indeed, where else can you see specimens with such charming names as ‘double-faced monster with brain hernia’?
Yet the famous babies in bottles make up just a small part of the enormous collection that also encompasses some wonderfully kitsch dioramas exhibiting rare objects and cultural practices from all over the world, and you can easily spend an hour or two picking through these. The third floor of the museum is given over to an exhibition about polymath Mikhail Lomonosov, with a recreation of his study-laboratory. The top floors of the museum are only open as part of a guided tour (in English for up to 4 people R2700, call in advance to book), and include the great Gottorp Globe, a rotating globe and planetarium all in one.