De anatomische preparaten van Frederik Ruysch

Ruysch´s preparations in Russia

Kunstkamera, built for the Ruysch collection in 1719

Russian tsar Peter the Great made Frederik Ruysch´s acquaintance during his first visit to Amsterdam. He was received at Ruysch's home and viewed his specimens. Several years later he decided to purchase the anatomist's collection of specimens. In this way the Dutch collection arrived in Russia in august 1718, in the first Russian museum, the Kunstkamera, where it has been kept the three hundred years since.

After Ruysch's death a lot of legends were born. Like the story that the collection got lost on transport to Russia, but this is a fabrication. Peter the Great's kissing of an embalmed boy's body is another example of such a fairy-tale.

Ruysch Anatomical preparations in the Kunstkamera before the fire of 1747

Some specimen went bad

Frederik Ruysch spoke highly of his own embalming craft. After a while however his specimen became richer in colour, after which the specimen turned dark and went bad. Voet described this after his visit to Saint Petersburg in 1794. The circumstances in which the specimen were kept were not always favourable, and this took it's toll. In 1747 a great fire raged in the Kunstkamera, that had to be renovated for 19 years. That was a heavy test, and unfortunately not the last for the specimen, that had survived the fire.

Loving care for the collection

Most curators of the Kunstkamera took good care of the anatomical collection. J.G.Duvernois, Josias Weitbrecht, A. Kaau-Boerhaave, the first graduated Russian doctor A.P.Protasov, the famous embryologist K.F. Wolff and the great naturalist from the first half of the 19th century, Karl. E. von Baer. They did not personally concern themselves with the conservation of the specimen, but left this to their staff.

Replacing bottles and liquids

In 1732 Andrej Grekov arrived at the Kunstkamera to join the staff. His name can be found earlier in the archives of the Academy, as a draughtsman. It was his instruction to 'take care of the Kunstkamera and conserve the curiosa' but he also had to make drawings and 'replace the alcohol and such things'. In 1740 Grekov 'replenished 87 bottles in the Kunstkamera and refreshed the alcohol in five bottles'. The replenishing and changing of the conservation liquid of the specimens happened on a regular basis. When necessary the burst bottles were replaced. It is not true, that only Karl von Baer replaced all the bottles of the collection. According to archival records Baer bought 120 bottles, and curator doctor Schultz did the actual work.

Plants and animals removed

Was K.F. Wolff aware of the value of the material he dissected for his publications on embryonic growth? For the specimen that remained he made a new unfinished catalogue, using a letter for the division, and a number for the position in a division. The period after Wolff, at the end of the 18th century was a difficult one for the collection. For ten years the collection lacked a curator. Only in 1805 doctor professor Zagorski was appointed. He stayed at the museum for forty years. Teratology held his interest, the science of congenital deformities, but he also minded the state of the specimens. He stated that the number of specimens, when compared to the catalogue of the collections (MIP 1,I Saint Petersburg, 1742), had decreased (440 specimen were missing), and 50 specimen had gone bad completely and had to written off. His biographer praises him for something that we think a pity nowadays. Zagorski had 'tidied up the bottles in which a plant or an animal had been kept next to the specimen'.

The Kunstkamera during the Siege of Leningrad

The Kunstkamera during the Siege of Leningrad

Zagorski's successors went through enormous pains to preserve the collection, but they suffered losses nevertheless. The worst ordeal for both the collection and the curators was the Second World War. When it broke out in 1941, the collection was prepared for evacuation. The German approach of Leningrad was so rapid that the objects could not be evacuated in time. The collection was stored on the ground floor, under the vaults. On the 18th of October 1941 a fire-bomb fell on the building's tower, the roof, walls, and windows were destroyed by shell-splinters from artillery-fire. Employees moved permanently to the museum in order to safeguard the collections, and to clear away the rubble.

Roof of the Kunstkamera in Saint-Petersburg

The first winter of the war was extremely cold. In January the water pipes froze up, and the heating and the sewers did not work. Twice a fire broke out and the employees put it out using water they brought from a hole they made in the Newa. They passed each other buckets until the ridge of the roof. The winter of 1942-1943 was the worst period of the blockade. People only received 200 grams of bread a day. 33 staff members starved to death or died of diseases caused by malnutrition.

Curator of the Ruysch preparations Maria Davidovna Toren

Bivouac at the Kunstkamera

In the summer of 1942 the staff members who had survived the winter were evacuated. In the city under siege a small group stayed behind. Maria Davidovna was one of them, a small slender woman. I made her acquaintance when I came to work for the Kunstkamera. She memorized how she had to rinse the specimens in the war years because white flakes had appeared in the conservation liquid. She was afraid these would damage the precious specimens. What an unbelievable dedication and perseverance!

In 1944 the repairs started and in the summer of 1945 the museum opened 4 exhibitions for it's 220th anniversary, and Ruysch's anatomical specimen were exhibited in the department of old collections.

Curator Wolf Ginzburg makes an inventory

Wolf Ginzburg, returning from the front, took upon him the heavy task of making an inventory of the collection. He was an anatomist, he restored the unique collection and made short descriptions of the specimens. Of course this meant that Ginzburg studied the history of the collection and of Ruysch's work thoroughly. This resulted in a study The anatomical collection of F. Ruysch in Peter's Kunstkamera, which until today remains an authority for Russian and foreign experts. Ginzburg's list contains 935 items, of which he writes: 'a maximum of twenty specimens have not been made by Ruysch, but by the first anatomists of the Academy of Sciences.'

Wim Mulder seals a Ruysch Anatomical specimen

Specimen abroad

In 1988, by way of the Foreign Office, the Kunstkamera received a request to participate with their specimen in the exhibition 'On the history of the relations between Russia and Holland', organized by the respective countries in the Rijksmuseum. Later the specimens travelled more often and Europe could witness the fact that Ruysch's collection had not been lost. Meetings were held with curators and their anatomical collections from Leiden, Utrecht and Groningen. The Utrecht expert Willem Mulder often travelled to Petersburg to demonstrate and apply conservation techniques that were new to us.

Anna B. Radzyun, curator Anatomical collections, MAE Kunstkamera, Saint-Petersburg, Russia