A house where history lives: State Historical Museum celebrating its 145th birthday

A house where history lives: State Historical Museum celebrating its 145th birthday
9 February is the 145th anniversary of the State Historical Museum. Mos.ru congratulates the museum on its birthday and looks back on its glorious past.

Noble goals and urgent needs

The Historical Museum traces its formal beginning to 9 February 1892, the day Emperor Alexander II gave his highest approval to establish the Museum of His Imperial Highness Crown Prince Alexander Alexandrovich (future Emperor Alexander III). Yet, it should probably be traced to a couple of months earlier when Colonel Nikolai Chepelevsky, a co-founder of the All-Russian Polytechnic Exhibition, first proposed it to the Crown Prince.  

The exhibition itself was to open in May 1872 in Moscow as part of ceremonies to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Peter the Great. Its collection served as the basis for the future Historical Museum. By the way, another museum owes its appearance to that same exhibition. It’s the Polytechnic Museum.

Count Alexei Uvarov, a well-known architect and a member of the Society of Lovers of Natural History, Anthropology and Ethnography, is justly considered to be one of the museum’s key inspirers and promoters. Together with Chepelevsky, he worked out a scientific concept for the new museum: from the Stone Age to the mid-19th century with a separate hall for each historical period. Besides the exhibition space, the museum was supposed to have a library, a reading room and a lecture hall.                        

Professor Konstantin Bestuzhev-Ryumin defined the museum’s goal as follows: “A people that wishes to be a great people must know its history. A people can only be great if it is clearly aware of its historical mission. A museum is one of the most powerful tools to raise people’s awareness – the supreme goal of the historical sciences.” This noble principle echoed the pressing necessity to bolster public patriotism shaken by Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War.

A long way to accomplishment

In spite of the “highest approval” and the urgency of the matter, eleven years passed before the Historical Museum finally opened its doors. There were two reasons behind the delay. First, the large-scale project required considerable funds. Initially conceived as a public institution, the museum relied mostly on donations from the wealthy. Eventually, a decision was made to take out a loan for 1.26 million roubles. And though in 1876 the government set aside annual subsidies and five years later the museum was granted government status, support from the Treasury failed to come regularly. The project was repeatedly suspended and it took 28 years to repay the loan.

Second, two supervisory boards were formed. One, chaired by Count Uvarov, was responsible for scientific matters. The other, headed by Ivan Zabelin, was in charge of construction proper. Zabelin, another of the museum’s founders, clashed in a fierce dispute with Uvarov over the building’s façades and interior. Each had his own arguments. The venue allotted for the museum was on the northern side of Red Square right near the Kremlin. The location obliged: there once was the Main Drugstore there under Peter I and later it housed the Moscow University and administrative bodies.

In the end, Zabelin’s viewpoint prevailed: the façade was to meet the Russian architectural traditions of the 16th century. In other words, the museum was to blend organically into the Red Square complex, striking a harmonious touch with the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin (Saint Basil’s). A competition was announced. After protracted discussions, the project was awarded to architect Vladimir Shervud, who, in cooperation with engineer Anatoly Semyonov, proposed an exquisite neo-Russian design called proudly “Fatherland,”

New building materials and technologies that could only be available at the time were used in the museum’s construction. Thus, the bricks were grouted with concrete, the interior structure was made from metal and the utility systems – the air ventilation system, heating and water pipes – were hidden in the walls. Façade finishing was the most complicated part with 260 stonemasons and hundreds of spare hands simultaneously working on it in 1876−1877.

Emperor Alexander III and his wife Maria Fyodorovna were the museum’s first visitors in late May 1883 as part of Alexander III’s coronation ceremonies. The public opening took place in early June.                            

State Historical Museum. Early 20th century.

Early days and transformation

Visitors used to enter the museum from Red Square, which led to a spacious ceremonial hall. Ivan Zabelin and Vladimir Shervud planned to decorate the hall with scenes from the everyday life of ancient Slavs, including farmers, hunters, soldiers and also images depicting the transition from pagan times to Christianity. But after the museum acquired imperial status, the architects had to revise their concept. The entrance hall was designed with a focus on the genealogy of the Russian tsars, to make it clear to the public that monarchs rather than the people played the key role in the Russian history. However, neither Zabelin nor Uvarov shared this belief…

Shervud’s proposal to fill the museum with mostly history-themed works of art became the stumbling block. Uvarov insisted that the exposition should be dominated by real historical items, and therefore he decided to hire a different architect, Alexander Popov, to do the job.  The museum was decorated by artists such as Viktor Vasnetsov, Ivan Aivazovsky, Valentin Serov, Genrikh Semiradsky, Ilya Repin and Sergei Korovin. However, their works, even the panoramic ones, served only as a background for historical objects.

In 1883, 11 halls on the ground floor, covering the period from ancient times to the late 12th century, were opened to public. Shervud’s architectural design highlighted real historical processes: pagan times and Christianity developed in parallel and merged in Kievan Rus, followed by the feudal disunity and reunification around Moscow. By 1917, the public could visit 16 halls covering history up to the Time of Troubles.

The first expositions mostly included items that Alexei Uvarov and his wife had donated to the museum. This couple of archeologists donated finds from their expeditions all across Russia, including the Caucasus and Crimea. Many other members of the nobility, such as the Bobrinskys, Golitsyns, Kropotkins, Obolenskys and Olsufyevs, followed suit and shared their collections too. Merchant Ivan Shchukin made the most generous donation: he designated his private museum of Russian antiquities, with a collection exceeding the entire Historical Museum’s fund, to the city in 1905. The museum’s exhibits were also replenished during World War I when relics from western provinces were brought to Moscow for storage.

Meanwhile, construction in the museum continued. A pavilion with a hall capable of accommodating 700 people was built in 1889. Fifteen years later, the hall housed an archive, a library, and a department of manuscripts and early printed books.

The halls on the first and second floors were not decorated but they have never been vacant. Renowned artists used them as workshops. These halls also hosted museum conventions, scientific conferences and themed exhibitions on history, archaeology, ethnography, art and literature. In 1899, for example, an exhibition marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alexander Pushkin was organised here, followed by another one marking the centenary of the poet Alexei Koltsov 10 years later.

The museum’s educational programme was still just taking shape: in the early 20th century, the museum arranged a mere 20 tours a year. Supply was clearly lagging behind the demand. This was nowhere near enough to satisfy the public interest in history. According to statistics, the museum was visited by an average of 39,000 people a year in 1905−1915.

View of the Kremlin and Alexander Garden. By Boris Ignatovich. Late 1930s.

Historical turmoil

After the events of 1917, the Historical Museum narrowly escaped a tragic fate. Museum keepers said in their memoirs that proletarians repeatedly suggested “the cursed broken pottery” and “the unnecessary documents” be discarded and a factory be opened in the building [1]. Museum workers risked their lives, resisting confiscation of the valuables under various pretexts. The museum barely avoided plundering thanks to the protection of People’s Commissar of Education Anatoly Lunacharsky and Vladimir Lenin himself.

The silver lining was that the museum’s collection was replenished with highly valuable exhibits within a few years, including archive documents and manuscripts, silverware, chinaware, ancient books and coins. Collectors and researchers handed over their collections for temporary storage in the hope that one day they would get them back. They believed the new government would not last long…

However, the Bolsheviks were determined to stay and took the matter seriously. The People’s Commissar of Education developed a new concept aimed at “orienting the museum  to the people”. Most of the halls were fundamentally redecorated, and the exhibitions were also modified. For example, some exhibitions of the 1920s highlighted peasants’ artwork and their everyday life of the 18−19th centuries.

In 1937, the Historical Museum hosted an exhibition devoted to Alexander Pushkin, and its materials later formed the basis of the Pushkin All-Union Museum. In the same period, the museum went through its first restoration timed for the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution. The museum featured several new themed exhibitions, but most importantly, it once again acquired a different status and a broad scope. It was officially declared the nation’s main museum in charge of all others. By 1940, the museum had six branches, including even … the Genoese Fortress in Sudak on the Black Sea.

During the Great Patriotic War (WWII), the museum remained open. It closed only once for eight days due to Nazi air raids in October 1941. The most precious exhibits were evacuated further away from the front lines – first, to the Volga area, and then Kazakhstan. After the war broke out, museum guides organised tours close on the heels of the war, using the materials collected on the battlefields. The first exhibition of this kind was devoted to the Battle of Moscow. The museum’s patriotically inspiring exhibitions attracted crowds of people: in 1942 alone, the museum held nearly 1,800 lectures that gathered over 86,000 people.


Revival and transformation

Having survived the war, the Historical Museum resumed active development in peace time. In 1945, it already had 30 exhibition halls, and in 1957, a permanent exposition finally settled on the first floor, covering the historical period until the end of the 19th century, and until 1917 six years later. Temporary exhibitions also continued: the museum highlighted historical events (the 1917 Great October Socialist Revolution, the victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45, the 600th anniversary of the Kulikovo Battle, and massive construction projects, e.g. the Baikal-Amur Mainline).

In 1986, the museum restoration and reconstruction began with a purpose of reviving the original exterior of the building and expanding the exhibition halls. For example, double-headed eagles were placed back on the corner towers, and lions and rhinos were re-established on the middle towers. The museum’s internal courtyard was transformed into a Polovetsky Courtyard with a fountain and statues, and several new halls were built next to it. Due to financial and organisational difficulties, the construction was completed only in 2002.

Today the Historical Museum is the largest national museum in Russia: its halls have about 22,000 exhibits on display, and the total collection is 1,000 times larger! Apart from the main building, the museum’s branches– the 1812 Patriotic War Museum, the Chambers of the Romanov Boyars in Zaryadye, and the Intercession Cathedral (St Basil’s Cathedral) in Red Square -- also welcome visitors. Every week, the museum organises lectures, and holds more than 10 new exhibitions per year. The museum has also prepared several new original projects for its 145th anniversary. Come and enjoy them!

Historical Museum. 1954Photographs from the Museum of Moscow collection.