Off the Tsar’s Shoulder - History of Replenishing Mining Museum’s Collections
In 1816 - 205 years ago - Empress Catherine the Great signed a decree on transferring her private collection of minerals from the Hermitage to the Mining Museum. The collectables were mentioned as far back as in the first guide to St. Petersburg. Yet, they have remained mixed with the rest of the exhibits for almost two centuries, with some of the items ending up gifted to other museums.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, both European and Russian emperors considered it their duty to be well versed in the minerals earth's depths of their countries were rich in. They may have been more or less familiar with their mineral wealth, may have been consulted by domestic experts or those invited from abroad. Regardless of that, they were all aware of the properties and possible uses of gemstones, rocks and ores.
Catherine II, who amassed an awe-inspiring collection, left many personæ of royal blood behind. Artefacts brought from research expeditions, gifts from people of position, collector's items purchased from famous mineralogists - she had it all. Finally, her collection included samples obtained as a result of the Collegium of Mining's work. The Russian Empire's executive body required mining works to send over their best products.
In addition to her interest in minerals, the empress became keen on collecting engraved gems, also known as intaglio. She called her hobby "stone sickness" or "stone fever". By 1795, the tsarina had over 10,000 carved gemstones and 34,000 casts in her possession, to which she referred collectively as "the abyss".
Shortly before her death, she asked to systematise and describe her mineral cabinet in detail. The records say therein were a total of 4,381 exhibits - ores, minerals, gemstones, and fossil bodies.
Pavel Svinyin, a well known Russian writer and editor, described the mineral cabinet of Catherine II in the Hermitage's Raphael Loggias in the following manner:
"Richly furnished glass tables were set by the windows - two by each, presenting selected and most beautiful rock samples and lumps of rare ores. Lovers of mineralogy can look upon them with pleasure and for their benefit."
In 1814, Russian troops led by Emperor Alexander I triumphantly entered Paris. Following the victory, the Hermitage's collection of items on display was enriched with art pieces from the Château de Malmaison's gallery. Among them are, for instance, paintings and sculptures from Joséphine de Beauharnais's collection.
The Hermitage Museum could not accommodate them all due to no longer having enough free space. Therefore the new exhibits were placed in the hall in which the natural-scientific exposition was earlier stored but then moved to the Mining Cadet Corps.
Altogether 3,400 specimens of fossil flora and fauna, ores and minerals, along with showcases they were in, were displaced. This became the first and arguably most extensive addition to the Mining Museum's collections of those done by royal family members. Some unique showpieces include placer gold and native copper from England and the Nikolaevsky mine, Ural malachite, amethysts from Hungary and Germany, different varieties of quartz, including samples of rock crystal from Saxony, vermilion from Austria and Germany.
Some 2,500 items were initially left at the Hermitage. However, they were passed over to the university in 1833.
Both the Hermitage and Mining Museum's mineral cabinets mainly comprised exhibits collected during the reign of Catherine II; hence, it was decided to put everything together upon merging the cabinets. Luckily, late-19th-century catalogues survived, and researchers have recently traced the items back to their origins and are re-creating the collection as it was.
It made the situation worse that some of the "imperial stones" had been given to other museums and spread worldwide. Catherine II's minerals and ores now delight people in Switzerland and the Netherlands; a study room for the Warsaw Lyceum was also made of them. In 1820, several specimens, earlier kept at the Mining Museum, were sent as a gift to Frédéric-César de La Harpe, a personal teacher of Alexander I. Imperial Russian Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna, on leaving Russia, also took a mineralogical collection containing among others samples gathered by her grandmother.
There are still topical collections that have been preserved by the Mining Museum in their original state. The explicitly identified objects encompass over 200 mineral samples, more than 150 polished plates of jasper, porphyry and other decorative, natural stones, 4 display boards with marble from deposits in Karelia, Russia. Other artefacts are yet to be identified.