Grigoriy Revzin about the Darwin Museum
The Weekend Magazine, No 8 (154), 5 March 2010
Every area has a role model. The Darwin Museum is a role model in the museum industry. No other museum in Moscow is as advanced, not even the Tretyakov Gallery or the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum. It's a top-notch modern European museum, which suggests the richest collection, the highest degree of academic expertise, well-developed social technologies … (work with children, retirees, people with disabilities and students), constantly renewed displays, incredible designer virtuosity, skillful use of multimedia and computer technologies and what not. In other words, if you want to get an idea of what a modern museum should look like, make your way to the Darwin. It plays the role of the leading cultural institution so confidently that we take it for granted, and it never occurs to us how unlikely all this is. Come to think of it, this museum opened back in 1995, the most unfavourable time for museums, when the idea of the evolution of man from apes had no appeal either for the public at large or the authorities. The museum is run by the city, and at the time Moscow Mayor Yuriy Luzhkov was busy building Christ the Savior Cathedral, where a different version of the descent of man is favoured. This miracle is rooted in the time of empty pockets and disdain for science, which defies understanding.
It seems to be a case of some delayed passionarity. The museum was thought up in 1907 by Alexander Kotz, who established the Department of Darwinism at the Higher Courses for Women. Since then Darwinism has been enforced like potatoes in Catherine the Great's reign. All sorts of museums of zoology, paleontology and mineralogy built their exhibitions around the evolution theory. What's more, any local history display was based on the idea of evolution from a mammoth tusk to the first cell of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party. Darwinism morphed into rows of dusty stuffed animals used by dusty lecturers to prove that God doesn't exist. Most natural history museums of Moscow are still showing signs of some confusion that they no longer have to do that. And this one gives a feeling that the spirit of 1907 survived intact till the present day, that Darwin's theory is a recent development and you are dazzled by his smart ideas.
It's indeed amazing. Darwin explained how progress can be aimless. Ever since Aristotle came up with the concept of progress, which implied that everything contains the idea of its virtue and seeks to attain it, all other thinkers have developed more or less the same idea. Progress means advancing toward a goal (a heaven on earth, a thorough self-knowledge of the world spirit, a kingdom of free workers); if there is no goal, there is no progress - only a chaos of random changes and a meaningless succession of births and deaths. Not a single ape in Darwin's theory aspired to become a human - no aim whatsoever. Males compete for females; males and females together produce offspring and compete for food trying not to become food. This results in the emergence of increasingly more perfect, complex and sophisticated forms of life; everyone is getting smarter, more beautiful, dangerous and elaborate - progress is obvious. In fact, this theory is beautiful in its minimalism.
It was probably in the Natural History Museum in London where I understood the significance of Darwinism. The thing is that that museum looks like an enormous gothic cathedral. You enter through a huge portal, which is far more magnificent than that of St. Paul's Cathedral, and realize that Darwinism lies at the heart of London. His view on natural history is an epitome of the capitalist age, a view of the world that offers a comprehensive explanation for it. While the medieval Summa Theologica contain something of an explanation of why God created animals, in this theory no one pursues any goals; no one creates anyone or wants anything; the queen reigns but doesn't rule; the prime-minister rules but doesn't reign; everyone competes with everyone, which makes life ever more perfect. Somebody gets eaten, of course, but somebody else gets fed, and this results in an increasingly more perfect world. Aimless progress as a social ideology.
There's only one problem here - it's hard to understand what's so attractive about it. Back in the museum, there is a hall of human evolution from the Australopithecus to the average Muscovite, The latter species emerges from statistics: it's a blonde man of middle height, blue-eyed; over 50, wearing jeans, a shirt and a vest, watching TV in the kitchen - a picture of an average resident of Moscow. Now you look at him and it occurs to you that, of course, he is better than the Australopithecus but not that much. I mean in comparison with apes the progress is obvious; other than that there's nothing appealing.
Darwin's theory was inspired by Galapagos Finches. I did the entire museum and was about to call it a day when I suddenly realized that I clean forgot about the finches. It took me quite a while to find them - so small and plain they are, just like sparrows, though their beaks are different as a result of adaptation to the varied Galapagos environment. Later, when Darwin returned from his journeys aboard the Beagle, he made experiments on the artificial selection of pigeons, and the museum even displays parts of the pigeon loft's tiled roof so naturally covered in birds' poop. It's funny that Darwin was a pigeon fancier just like present-day parking lot watchmen. And that such a great theory is based on limited data - sparrows and pigeons. I mean, they can certainly be admired, but the divine plan or a great aim is one thing, and those birds, who are not exactly intellectuals, are a different story.
We are living at a time when we don't often come up with something positive, as living without a goal in life is not that easy. On the other hand, it gives an opportunity to relish the process itself. And I'd say the Museum addresses the issue in the best possible way. After all, while traditional Soviet museums of evolution had a different mission (they sought to prove the absence of God), this one takes delight in life itself. What does it mean? It means scrutinizing life through cutting edge technologies; always finding something new; it means employing video and computers. Let stuffed birds sing, frogs croak, beetles buzz, and dinosaurs move in the displays. Let it be entertainment and life-fest. Up-to-date, state-of-the-art and diverse world. Everyone competes with everyone else. Someone's horns are longer; someone's muzzle looks more intellectual, and someone else is no less than the biggest roach in the world. There is no aim here. Just life.
Museum Permanent Exhibitions
"History of Darwin Museum" Ground Floor
The 1st part of exhibited museum's collections tells about fascinating, dramatic and, at the same time, happy history of the State Darwin Museum creation and development.
"Biological Diversity" Ground Floor
Here are the "microfragments" of the Earth's greatest ecosystems - savanna, tropical forests, mountains, sea, and sea coasts. In the center of the gallery are presented life-size recontructions of some extinct animals.
Biodiversity - the amazing richness and variety of wildlife and habitats on Earth, as a result of adaptation to the environment - excites even an experienced explorer's imagination. Why they are so different? What is the origin of biodiversity? These questions are being asked throughout the history of natural sciences.
Living organisms can be found everywhere - from hot springs inside the craters of underwater volcanoes to the glacial mountain peaks.
This exhibition is the tale upon the various biotopes - ocean, tropical rain forests, savannah, seashores and mountains.
It has long been believed that life in marine communities can only be found just off the coast, but recently the extraordinarily rich ecosystems, using subsoil resources instead of the solar energy, have been discovered around submarine volcanoes at a depth of 2500 meters.
Tropical rain forests are the most biodiversity-rich ecosystems on Earth. Four fifths of all scientifically described plants and at least half of all terrestrial animals species (of more than 1 500 000 species) are concentrated there.
In savannah and on the seashores life in not so abundant, but there are some peculiarities too. The fauna of savannah is characterized by numerous species of big herbivorous mammals, and seashores are rich in bird colonies and seal rookeries.
In mountains the variability of abiotic factors allows to different living communities to co-exist in the relatively small area. Some of them are typical for grasslands, lying aside of mountains, others are endemic.
All the living inhabitants of Earth - are the result of long evolution. The development of the organic world was characterized by emerging and extinction of species.
The exhibition located in the central area of the hall tales upon the vestiges of the past biospheres. All the reconstructions of extinct animals are life-sized.
But there are some species, so-called living fossils. Their ancestors appeared millions of years ago. Now they belong to various living communities.
Life appeared on Earth more than 3.5 billion years ago. The global sum of all ecosystems on Earth is the biosphere, its structure and development are determined by the joint activity of all living organisms on Earth.
"The Stages of Nature Cognition" 1st Floor
"The Stages of Nature Cognition" illustrates a complicated way of Man's cognition of Natural laws. This gallery is unique in a sense that no other museum in the world has an entire gallery devoted to the history of development of scientific thought.
"Microevolution" 1st Floor
"Microevolution" tells about basic principles of evolution, a process of formation of new species, and explains why animals and plants are so well adapted to their natural environments and mutual coexistence.
"Zoogeography" 2-nd Floor
"Zoogeography" shows a variety of animals from different parts of the Earth, and explains the ways by which the fauna of our planet was formed.
"Macroevolution" 2-nd Floor
"Macroevolution" is devoted to the origin and development of life on the Earth from a molecule up to Man. You will learn who inhabited landscapes of distant geological epochs, who the deep ancestor of Man looked like, and how his evolution, as well as his relationship to Nature, has been developing at different times.
Here you will also discover ethology - a science about animal behaviour.
The Age of Darwin Museum
The museum, like every prominent social and cultural event has an individual initiative at his beginning . Such person who put forward the initiative for the Darwin Museum was its founder and director until 1964, Sc.D., Professor Alexander F. Kots. If we should characterize the personality of this extraordinary man in few words , we would say - scientist, museologist and teacher.
It all started with a childish hobby. In his memoirs, Alexander Kots wrote: "Being three years old, I feel myself a zoologist, five - museologist, an enthusiastic collector of everything even slightly related to animals. This is my love for nature wich was inherited from father and mother I think. "
Alexander Kots was born in Moscow in 1880 in the family of German immigrant, Ph.D., University of Gottingen, an outstanding botanist, linguist and poet-lover Alfred Karlovich Kots and Eugenia Aleksandrovna, born Grassmann.
Research interests of the future biologist determined quite early. In 1899, the 19-year-old schoolboy Sasha (Alexander) Kots went to his first independent expedition to Western Siberia. Impressions of the nature of this region were unusually bright, and stuffed birds, made by a young researcher formed the basis for the future collections of Darwin Museum. It was these stuffed birds, presented on the exhibition at the XIV All-Russian Society of Acclimatization, brought to Alexander the recognition of his taxidermy skills and won a large silver medal.
The mentioned collections initiated future collections of Darwin Museum as well as the scientific results of his work were awarded by publication in the Proceedings of the Society of Naturalists. The first scientific paper was entitled "Notes on the ornithological fauna of South-Western Siberia."
The success of a novice biologist and taxidermist was not accidental. A crucial role in it, there is no doubt, was played by a new acquinted of Alexander - Friedrich Karlovitch Lorenz (1842 - 1909) - a well-known taxonomist and owner of the best taxidermic laboratory in Moscow.
Stuffed animals made by F.K.Lorents company , featured of high quality, dynamic and natural postures. That is why they were bought so willingly by all major European zoological museums. Alexander learned the art of taxidermy from experienced preparators, and used each opportunity to update his home collection. Of course, a schoolboy was unable to afford all the desired items , but F.K.Lorents gave the young man right to pay in installments. Long-term friendship of these people ended only with the death of Frederick Karlovich. After his death Alexander became chief financial officer of the company. Upon his request, he was paid stuffed animals , and the laboratory was still working for the Museum at discounted prices. Three weary years, filled with account books, order forms, the whims of customers, turned at last hundreds of wonderful museums exhibits.
But all that was later. And then, at the end of the XIX century is was just a home zoological collection of beautiful and rare items , without any plot.
In 1901, Alexander Kots ingressed the Moscow University on the Natural Sciences Department. Fascinating lectures of M.A.Menzbir, Vernadsky, Timiryazev, A.P.Pavlov forced to forget about the long-time hobby. Now all the money earned on private lessons in biology, were spent to the acquisition of foreign literature on general biology. A.Wallace, H. de Vries , A.Weissman editions, bought by Alexander during those years, are being carefully stored in the library of the Museum to the present.
In 1905, Alexander Kots went abroad in Villa Franco on the practice of Hydrobiology. In addition, he was keenly interested in the presentation of Darwinism at the largest universities in Europe. Personal acquaintance with the pillars of evolutionary theory: Hugo de Vries, August Weisman, Ernst Haeckel was very useful for the student . He pointed out at the lack of materials to be shown in the classroom lectures. A long sequence of Museum halls passed before his eyes : Munich, Berlin, Dresden, Stuttgart, Breslau, Leipzig, Frankfurt, Jena, Bonn, Brussels, Paris, London ... But how similar they were shelving the huge library, where every showcase was closed tightly for the unprepared visitor. "Throughout the Museum halls - all of the same monotonous rows of stuffed animal and birds. But even the most skillful dramatization of the animal life would not be able to uncover the meaning of study of nature" - wrote A.F.Kots. Even in famous Darwin's hall of the British Museum he was struck by "the wealth of facts and poverty of the idea expressed by the exhibitions."
This is where Alexander recalled his collection! He set about trying to create at home the museum, which promotes the basis of evolutionary theory. But how? .. There was no money, no room for dreams. Nothing - except for the brilliant ideas and enthusiasm.
It was clear that the new museum should have two creative principles: theoretical knowledge and visual confirmation. Fortune smiled seeker. In 1907, Alexander Coates was invited to the Moscow Higher Women's Courses for conducting practical classes in anatomy, animals, and later entrusted to a young teacher lectures on Darwinism.
This event was a turning point in the fate of the museum and its founder. " Dozens of exhibits were extracted from the storage and placed on tables in the audience in the manner prescribed by the role of each object." Young public greeted an enthusiastic lecturer with attention.
A new method of competing the collections were elaborated too. A.F.Kots wrote that the collection of "uniting the individual chapters of evolutionary theory: geographical, age and personal variation, adaptation, Mendelism, Lamarckism, the origin of man ...". Responses to the pile of letters with orders to Germany, England and France were prompt. "Rare week without bundle , rare day without envelope with a foreign name and a rare hour - with no new plans for further completions of the museum" - later recalled Alexander Fedorovich. Part of the new zoological exhibits was provided by the laboratory, headed by N.K.Koltsov, but most part was still bought at the personal expense of the founder of the museum.
In 1911 there was a very important event in Alexander kots life , he married Nadezhda Nikolaevna Ladygin (1889-1963). .Hardworking junior of MVZHK, warden of biological circle, keenly interested equally in psychiatry and zoology - after years she will become a famous scientist, invistigator of animal psychology, the author of many scientific papers, Doctor of biological sciences. A girl of incomparable beauty looks peacefully from old photos. Slim waist, velvety brown eyes, long braids, arranged around the crown of blond head. The features of this tender face feflect as a mirror the beautiful soul. Girl with a prophetic name "Hope" (Nadezhda in Russian means Hope) forever linked her destiny with Alexander Fedorovich. Half a century full of severe trials and joyful victories, tied it to the museum, after which the base A.F.Kots certainly shared with her.
The young couple doubled their efforts, working with the museum collection. It was about that time the museum's history A.F.Kots wrote: "For last rubles saved by malnourished hosts a parcel with paradise birds, and other alien rarities were ordered." These people were not affectioned neither to the material well-being, nor to satiety. They rose to the cloud nine on their winds of a passion for creativity, a life in art.
That spring of 1913, Alexander Kots, along with Nadezhda Nikolaevna went abroad again. At this time, the main purpose of the trip was the acquisition of new exhibits at the taxidermist firms in London, Berlin, Hamburg and Halle, where there were gathered from around the world exotic animals. In addition to the natural science exhibits some ht books on biology and the five original letters of Charles Darwin were bought too.
This same year 1913 were published the following scientific works of Alexander Coats: "Essays on the Theory of Evolution" and "Ways and goals of evolutionary theory in the reflection of biological museums." In the latter work the idea to show some works of art in museums of natural science appeared for the first time.
Even in the grim years of the revolution and civil war, full of confusion, terror, hunger and cold, the museum staff did not interrupt their work. In the unheated museum permises they created sculptures, paintings, stuffed animals, conducted scientific research. In January 1918 Provincial Commissar (and professor of the Higher Courses for Women), Pavel Karlovich Shternberg issued a Guard certificate for the museum collections as "representing the great scientific value" .
Times were hard: Kots had had to work hard at varios positions . He taught at Moscow State University, at the Military Pedagogical Academy, Institute of Education, read public science lectures at numerous clubs. In addition, in the twenies A.F.Kots was appointed director of the Moscow Zoo. Here he had a chance to resume his excursions and research work. Experimental studies were carried out on animal psychology, genetics and interspecific hybridization. Such a combination of tough academic job was good for the museum. The results of these works, recorded in photographs, drawings and stuffed animals is an invaluable expository material.
But not only problems of general biology was in focus. Ongoing problem of scientific work of Alexander Fedorovich was the development of exposition and lecture methods to promote the theory of evolution. By 1941, after more than 30 years of its existence, the museum was visited by up to half a million of people. Mr. Kots had a brilliant talent for lecturing and nobody was indifferent at his lectures. The archive contains hundreds of grateful letters addressed to Alexander Fedorovich.
Despite the hard work on acquisition and recording of collections and endless efforts to build a new museum building, Alexander Fedorovich managed to dedicate time for creativity. He is author of more than two hundred aof museological works. However, much of his artistic legacy is in the manuscripts. Today we appeal to them once again . Since 1993, the annual State Darwin Museum bulletins are being opened by his articles. These works did not lost their relevance and should be treat as classics of museology.
The life of the museum and of its founder could have been talking for a long time. However, it would better to characterize Mr. Kots by his own sentence: "That is the insistence that once made me hungry, spending money for breakfast to buy the dead birds and zoological pictures - this same feature conducted me on life for the half of a century, prompting Day after day, year after year to collect, accumulate dozens, hundreds, thousands of scientific exhibits for the museum ... "His enthusiasm infected the director and staff. Creativity united all. The collections have grown over time, the exposition halls of the museum began to resemble a crowded storage facilities. But it took many years to wait for the new museum edifice . Only in 1995 this dream has come true and the renowated Darwin Museum reopened its doors to its guests.
Alexander Kots lived hard, but he had a wonderful life. He was happy enough to see his museum recognized and loved by public , with a friendly team working deftly. A.F. Kots entrusted to us - his descendants - a great deal: a museum, his articles, his example to fight the chaos, his boyish enthusiasm and experience of the patriarch. Life, fortunately sometimes gives us such examples.