The history of the State Darwin Museum’s collections

The State Darwin Museum was originally intended as a museum dedicated to the theory of evolution. All main collections were formed according to this primary idea since its foundation in 1907.

Unlike the vast majority of natural science museums, both national and foreign ones, which collections were shaped according to the systematic or regional principles, the collections of the Darwin museum are primarily intended to display the natural variability of animals (individual or geographical) and illustrate the most important fundamentals of the evolutionary theory formed by Charles Darwin.

The Darwin museum was initially created as an educational museum at the Moscow Higher Women’s Courses to illustrate the course in the theory of evolution. The extensive collection contained the items (mostly stuffed birds) gathered by the founder and the first director of the museum Alexander Fedorovich Kohts when he was a gymnasium student and a student of the State Moscow University.

The collection materials were regularly purchased in the shops of the Moscow Okhotny Ryad and in the market in the Trubnaya square where most hunters from all over European Russia and Siberia brought their trophies. Part of the exhibits was procured by A.F. Kohts himself during two expeditions to the southern Siberia in 1899 and 1902.

Fedor Karlovich Lorenz, an outstanding expert naturalist in taxidermy and an owner of the best taxidermic workshop in Moscow, made an invaluable contribution to the development of the new museum’s collection. A.F. Kohts learned the art of taxidermy from F.K. Lorenz. Later in life they became good friends. Inspired by the idea of creating a museum, F.K. Lorenz provided all necessary exhibits on favoruable conditions. After his death in 1909, A.F. Kohts became the head of the workshop. Many talented and skillful taxidermists worked at the Lorenz’ workshop at that time: Philip Evtikhievich, Jacob Evtikhievich and Dmitry Yakovlevich Fedulov. Later all of them became employees of the State Darwin Museum. The stuffed animals created in the Lorenz’ workshops even now stand out among all other exhibits because of their remarkably excellent quality. At present time the Darwin museum keeps 718 stuffed birds, 184 bird skins and 27 stuffed mammals made in the workshop of F.K. Lorenz. The list includes the stuffed black hare, white fox, white marten and many birds with considerable deviations from the norm in colour. These numerous exhibits formed the basis of the future main collections illustrating individual and geographical variability of animals.

One of the most important collections of the museum is the collection of grouse with colour aberrations (including the wood grouse, the hazel grouse and many other birds). This collection was formed by contributions of F.K. Lorenz who had a great interest in colour aberrations and purposefully collected such specimens.

In 1919 the Polytechnic Museum donated the collection of black grouses gathered by I.I. Zalogin (about 60 specimens) to the Darwin museum. In 1933 A.F. Kohts purchased a similar collection of V.E. Andreevskiy. This collection was formed in the mid XIXth century. A few years earlier, in 1930, the Darwin museum received a collection of black grouses (mostly hybrids and birds with colour aberrations) gathered by D.P. Solomirskiy. The collection came from the Yekaterinburg local history museum. Some materials for the collection (black grouses with various aberrations in colour) were given to the museum by M.A. Menzbier and P.P. Sushkin. At present time this collection includes over 600 items and continues to grow.

The collection of mammals with aberrations in colour was formed in a similar way. The first exhibits were created in the workshop of F.K. Lorenz too. A considerable part of materials was received from hunters or purchased in the Okhotny Ryad.

The centralized delivery of furs was organised after 1917. The “Sojuzpushnina” started playing an important role in the replenishment of the museum’s collection. This organisation provided many valuable materials for scientific selection and research such as skins of foxes, wolves, snow foxes, bears, lynxes, martens, sables, minks and other fur animals with different aberrations in colour.

There was a long-term friendship between A.F. Kohts and the staff of the “Sojuzpushnina”. A.F. Kohts read many lectures on the theory of evolution there and the employees of the “Sojuzpushnina” developed genuine interest in the Darwin museum’s collections. They selected all skins of animals that could possibly enrich and advance the museum’s scientific funds. This greatly helped to form an extensive collection of skins of foxes and stuffed foxes illustrating geographical and individual variability of colour aberrations in nature as well as numerous examples of variability as a result of artificial hybridization.

Today this collection includes 178 stuffed animals and 149 skins. Cooperation between the Darwin museum and the “Sojuzpushnina” lasted until 1984.

In 1913 A.F. Kohts visited a few European companies to purchase zoological exhibits. The most famous among them were the companies of Ward, Gardner, Rosenberg (London, England), Schlüter, Umlauf (Halle and Hamburg, Germany), and Fritsch (Prague, Austria-Hungary, now Czech Republic). The companies of Rosenberg, Schlüter and Umlauf provided numerous tropical bird skins and stuffed tropical birds (hummingbirds, parrots, sunbirds and others) as well as their nests with eggs. The list of other items includes the stuffed monkeys, lemurs, pangolins and other exotic animals, tropical insects (mostly butterflies and beetles), jaws of different sharks and rays, casts of fossil skulls and bones of various mammals.

At the same time, the museum purchased the materials on birds and mammals from V.V. Troitskiy and V.N. Nikitin, the members of the expeditions to various regions of eastern Africa.

In 1920 the Darwin museum acquired the exhibits of the private museum that was nationalized after the revolution. This private museum belonged to the famous Moscow philanthropist, horse breeder and naturalist A.S. Khomyakov.

The importance of these newly acquired exhibits is difficult to overestimate. The funds of the Darwin museum were immediately increased by a few thousands of items, mostly tropical birds and insects. This replenishment included hundreds of stuffed hummingbirds and birds-of-paradise of exceptionally rare species, single copies of which are presented only in a few major museums. At that time the Darwin museum housed one of the best collections that included 178 birds-of-paradise and 558 hummingbirds.

The most valuable part of the insect collection is the selection of diurnal butterflies collected by famous British naturalists A. Meek in New Guinea and E. Le Moult in French Guiana. The entire material is thoroughly labeled and perfectly preserved.

The most unique part of the A.S. Khomiakov’s collection is the stuffed great auk which was exterminated by man, and a few stuffed passenger pigeons. Once they used to be almost the most numerous birds in North America, and now they are also extinct because of human activities. Another valuable part of this collection includes an almost complete skeleton of the dodo, a large extinct flightless bird that used to inhabit the Mascarene Islands.

The large collection of works of art (paintings, graphics and sculptures) started to form along with the main natural history collections since the moment of the museum’s foundation. An outstanding Russian animal painter V.A. Vatagin actively cooperated with the museum and became a staff member in 1922. Later the museum continued collecting the works of the best Russian animal painters such as A.N. Formozov, N.N. Kondakov, V.V. Trofimov, A.N. Komarov, K.K. Flerov and V.A. Belyshev. Their remarkable art works of various thematic areas and the most diverse techniques shaped the core of Russia's best collection of modern animal art. A.F. Kohts once said that the Darwin museum is like “The State Tretyakov Gallery in biology”. At present time this collection is actively replenished by graphics, paintings and sculptures created by contemporary animal artists who follow the traditions of their famous predecessors.

Library funds of the Museum are especially remarkable. The basis was formed by the selection of books from the personal libraries of A.F. Kohts, N.N. Ladygina-Kohts and relate to various fields in biology. This collection includes rare and valuable editions such as “Historia animalium” by Conrad Gessner, 12 volumes by Ulisse Aldrovandi (“Ornithology”, “Dendrology” and others), many lifetime editions by Charles Darwin in different languages. In 1920 the museum’s collections were replenished by the collection of birds, insects and a unique natural history library of A.S. Khomiakov (over 400 items) which included mainly books on ornithology and entomology.

In 70-es the library fund of the museum was increased by the large scientific library of P.P. Smolin, the museum’s employee. Over recent decades, the museum acquired personal libraries of such famous biologists as S.A. Severtsov, M.S. Gilyarov, I.A. Khalifman, A.P. Kuziakin, A.A. Paramonov, R.F. Gekker and V.Y. Reshetov. At present time, a rare book fund has been allocated from the general library fund. The rare book fund includes various editions published before 1914 as well as other rare and limited editions.

Many outstanding professional zoologists and amateur collectors played a significant role in the formation of the museum’s collection. At the beginning of the last century, the scientific funds were replenished by the selection of bird skins collected by M.A. Menzbier and P.P. Sushkin, later by the collection of insect nests (mostly Hymenoptera) provided by M.P. Sadovnikova-Koltsova.

In 1970-es the museum’s employee N.N. Pugachuk donated to the museum his personal collection of diurnal butterflies made during the expeditions to the Far East, Transbaikalia and Middle East. The collection included about 500 specimens and became an excellent addition to comparatively small entomological collection of that time.

In 1982 the museum purchased the collection of teeth and fossil remains of ancient sharks. It belonged to L.S. Glickman, a great specialist in paleoichthyology from Leningrad, and included over 112 000 items from the Pacific waters and many regions of the USSR. The collection contains typical material for a number of newly described species and characterized by stratigraphic completeness.

Between 1982 and 1988, the State Darwin Museum gradually obtained the clam shells collection (7479 items), which was gathered by the Moscow collectors K.N. Gaidenko and his wife T.V. Gaidenko. Most of the shells belong to the tropical marine species and were acquired through exchange with other foreign collectors. Many specimens are of great scientific value. There are only a few such specimens in many museums’ and private collections around the world.

In 1989 and 1990 the museum purchased two fundamental collections of a famous specialist in zoology and zoogeography, head of the Department of Zoology at the Moscow Region Pedagogical Institute, the professor A.P. Kuzyakin. The collection of mammal skins includes 1200 specimens (the Chiroptera, Eulipotyphla, Lagomorpha and Rodentia orders). The collection represents practically all fauna species of the former USSR and includes some remarkable specimens from North America and South-East Asia. The second collection of diurnal butterflies contains about 21000 specimens collected all over the former USSR, including the Carpathians, Chukotka Peninsula and the Arctic areas. The collection represents about 85% of the animals that inhabit these lands. The seriality of the collected material is of particular value (selections of individual species exceed 200 specimens) and perfectly demonstrates individual and geographical variability of different taxa. Several new species and subspecies were described according to the materials of this collection. This type material increases its value. A year later, the museum’s library was supplemented by the private scientific library of A.P. Kuzyakin which mainly contained books on mammalogy and ornithology.

In 1991 the Darwin museum purchased the collection of butterflies formed by the Moscow collector G.A. Shapiro. This collection contains over 14000 national and foreign specimens. The most valuable features 108 specimens of tropical butterflies (the Ornithoptera genus) from the South-Eastern Asia, Malay Archipelago, New Guinea Islands and its neighbouring Islands.

Between 1985 and 1994, certain selections of various insect groups (butterflies, beetles, dragonflies and net-winged insects) were purchased from a few Moscow collectors: M.F. Terekhova, V.K. Tuzova, M.L. Danilevskiy, A.V. Danchenko, and A.V. Monastirskiy.

At the same time, two small collections of diurnal butterflies were purchased from the relatives of the Moscow collectors V.P. Gorokhov and Y.G. Promptov. These acquisitions significantly complemented the museum’s entomological collections. One of the most remarkable recent additions include the collection of the nests and eggs of birds of Russia made by N.G. Kliuchnikov and donated to the museum by his relatives (the collection consists of 167 nests and 661 eggs), the collection of primate skulls (195 skulls) formed and donated to the museum by V.E. Chernyshev, an employee of the M.P.Chumakov Institute of Poliomyelitis and Viral Encephalitis of RAMS. This valuable collection was thoroughly documented. In 2004 the museum purchased the collection of diurnal butterflies (the Papilionidae family) which includes over 2500 specimens and represents over 75% of the world fauna of this particular family. This collection is the result of continuous work of an amateur collector N.V. Stepanov.

Since the mid 80-es, expedition activities for collecting scientific materials were initiated by a new generation of young and talented employees of the Darwin museum. Ornithological, entomological and malacological collections were formed especially intensively, according to scientific interests and specialization of researchers.

Earlier the practical collection of materials could be carried out only occasionally, when the museum’s researches had an opportunity to join some serious academic expedition. In 1971-1973, the museum’s researcher V.V. Kozhemiakin joined the Soviet-Mongolian expedition. The result was the collection of skins and skulls of rodents as well as extensive botanical materials from Northern Mongolia. In 1971 and 1977 V.M. Mutsetony participated in the pacific expedition onboard the research vessel “Dmitri Mendeleev” and collected a wonderful material representing the fauna of New Guinea and the Islands of Oceania.

The expeditions of different levels became more and more frequent since 1985, when the museum’s researchers P.V. Bogdanov and D.V. Obydov carried out the expedition to the western and central Pamir Mountains (the Sarez Lake area).

Each year, from April to September, the Darwin museum sent up to eight expedition groups to the most remote areas of the former USSR with a purpose of collecting scientific material for the funds replenishment. The groups were often sent to the various areas of the Yamal Peninsula (E.V. Nesterov, D.V. Obydov, I.V. Fadeev, V.V. Obrazov) famous for its rich ornithological fauna, and to the Polar Urals (P.V. Bogdanov).

The researchers organised a few expeditions to the bird ringing station named Chok-Pak at the Zoological Institute, Academy of Science in Kazakhstan. This station is situated in the intermountain descent between the Alatau and Karatau ranges, which is the location of seasonal migration of many birds.

The museum’s researchers repeatedly visited different areas of the Primorsky Krai, Sakhalin (D.V. Obydov, E.V. Nesterov, O. A. Gvozdeva), Baikal and Central Asia.

One of the most remote places visited by the researchers include the Rushan and Northern Alichur ranges in the Sarez Lake area (P.V. Bogdanov, D.V. Obydov), highlands of the Yazgulem, Shughnon, Ishkoshim and Bakchigir ranges (P.V. Bogdanov), the Gissar Range (I.V. Fadeev, A.R. Aliakrinskiy), the Trans-Alay range (E.V. Nesterov), the Kyrgyz Ala-Too range (D.V. Obydov, O.A. Gvozdeva), Ile Alatau, the Terskey Alatau (P.V. Bogdanov), the Fergana range (D.V. Obydov), the northern slope of the Alay mountains (P.V. Bogdanov). E.V. Nesterov’s expeditions to the Agrakhan bay of the Caspian Sea in Dagestan provided extensive ornithological material. The number of scientific expeditions to local and remote areas greatly exceeds this list.

Also the researches organised a number of expeditions to the Altai areas and southern Siberia (D.V. Obydov, I.V. Fadeev, O. A. Gvozdeva). In 1996 a few researchers went to the Chukotka Peninsula (E.V. Nesterov, I.V. Fadeev) where they managed to collect wonderful ornithological material (over 70 specimens).

In the continuous process of studying and processing the museum's fund collections, the museum’s staff prepared and published a large number of scientific works on faunistics and taxonomy of the studied groups of animals. These publications describe about thirty new species and subspecies of diurnal butterflies and beetles. The State Darwin Museum continually keeps studying and developing its extensive and precious natural history and art collections.

The history of the State Darwin Museum’s collections