In Western Europe maritime museums in Toulon (1814), Paris (1827) 1 and Madrid (1843) 2 were the first to open their doors to the public. The museums were based on the ship model collections brought together throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, but soon they were extended due to acquisitions of marine paintings and other objects of art, ethnographic items brought from long voyages, pieces of uniform, banners, weapons, memorabilia of outstanding sailors, nautical instruments, book and chart libraries.
The Maritime Museum in Saint-Petersburg took its place among the world’s first maritime museums.
In 1805 Emperor Alexander approved the report envisaging a museum “… where all interesting books to compile its library, as well as a selection of rarities, machines, models, and physical and mathematical instruments would be brought together and where everyone upon the permission of its administration can enter and read books or examine the exhibits…” Collections of the Model Chamber made the basis for the Maritime Museum. The museum took over its practical functions, too. Like the Model Chamber, the museum retained the status of a research institution essential to cater for the needs of the Navy: a share of the allotted funds was to be spent “… to conduct various experiments and tests.” Following the Model Chamber, the museum was to provide naval officers with the state-of-the-art nautical instruments and books. After the library of the Admiralty Collegium was joined to the museum, it became the major cultural center of the Navy.
The emergence of the Maritime Museum was welcomed by Navy officers. Soon it became a tradition to donate to the museum rarities brought from long voyages. First I. F. Krusenstern and Yu. F. Lisyansky brought several items after they returned from the first Russian round-the-world tour in 1806, then V. M. Golovnin, F. F. Bellingshausen, M. P. Lazarev, F. P. Litke, F. P. Wrangel and other famous sea-farers donated various items to the museum. Among the gifts there were weapons, boats and clothes of the natives of the north-west America and Pacific Ocean islands, as well as stuffed birds and animals, minerals and samples of wood, etc. Sailors of that time believed that only rarities and exotic objects are worth exhibiting in the museum but not everyday objects they used during campaigns and exploration expeditions. That was why the memorabilia pertaining to important naval events or outstanding people came to the museum in lamentably small numbers, long after the events took place and in roundabout ways. Instead, the museum received ethnographical, zoological and geological collections that were not in line with its profile. This happened because there was no clear and detailed plan of collecting activities. Authors of the project and those who worked in the museum had a very vague idea of a maritime museum concept. There was no experience in that field, as the oldest European maritime museums were at least founded at the same time as the museum in Saint-Petersburg and opened their doors for public even later than the Maritime Museum. That was why in the lack of the option the museum had to turn to the available experience of museums of artistic, naturalistic or combined specialization (the Chamber of Curiosities and the Hermitage first of all). Hence the tendency of the Maritime museum to bring together any ‘rarities’ and include in its exhibitions ethnographic and naturalistic collections, and also medals, coins, bas relieves and other objects that were not directly connected with maritime matters. This was the time when “…because of insufficient development of science, most museums did not have a clear concept, which determined a random selection of their exhibits and was typical for all European museums of that time.”
The first director of the Naval Museum was Xavier de Mestre, a scientist, writer and painter who did much to extend the museum collections. The Model Chamber in the museum was the department where ship models and drawings were stored; it was headed by Alexander Glotov, a famous ship model producer, author of books on seamanship, shipbuilding and naval history. In 1818 he initiated the foundation of the model workshop that parented the development of the national model ship construction.
Collections of the Maritime Museum grew rapidly. In 1825 it was divided into 4 departments, namely the Model Chamber, Department of Charts and Nautical Instruments, Library, and Chamber of Natural History Rarities, which included all ethnographic, zoological and geological collections. Every department had its chief. The Dept of Charts and Nautical Instruments was headed by Gavriil Sarychev, an outstanding hydrograph, geographer and polar explorer, while famous sea-farer and chart maker Ivan Krusenstern headed the Library. The Model Chamber, the department where models and drawings were stored, was under the supervision of Alexander Glotov and later Nicholas Bestuzhev, a chronicler of naval history, who later became an active participant of the Decembrists, uprising.
Captain Lieutenant N. A. Bestuzhev was appointed Chief of the Model Chamber in July 1825. He was commissioned to work out a better arrangement of the exhibits in the Naval Museum. Soon Bestuzhev produced a draft concept of ‘Organizing Museum Sections of Models, Instruments and Natural Exhibits.’
Assuming that the Maritime Museum was expected to serve to ‘benefits of the Russian Navy’ the author believed that the main purpose of if had to be ‘preserving and obtaining everything to benefit the improvement of navigation, as far as shipbuilding and other aspects pertaining to navigation are concerned.’ The objective of the concept was the systematization of exhibits. The author offered to divide the general display into three sections. The Model section basing on the Model Chamber collection was to include exhibits dealing with shipbuilding, ship rigging and equipment and to display ‘the progress in the art of building ships’. The Instrument section was supposed to accumulate all the materials of the ‘scientific aspect’ (charts, terrestrial and celestial globes, nautical, mathematical and physical instruments) to demonstrate the improvement of human knowledge in the art of navigation. The third section of the museum - naturalistic - was to show “acquisitions from abroad”, that is everything brought from long-distance voyages. It was to highlight the contribution of the Russian Navy into the exploration of the world. The exhibits were to be arranged according to the geographical principle to show nations described by Russian travelers from various sides (displaying implements, weapons, clothes and religious objects) and the environment they lived in (using minerals, stuffed animals and birds, etc.). Thus the concept offered by Bestuzhev for the Maritime Museum envisaged the ethnographic and naturalistic collections. At the same time N.A. Bestuzhev offered to take non-specialized and duplicated exhibits out of the museum.
The display that could have been made according to Bestuzhev’s concept might have become a prominent event in the museum practice of its time. Unfortunately, he did not have a chance to put his concept into practice as he was arrested because of his active participation in the uprising of the Decembrists. Lieutenant Zavalishin took over but a month and a half later he was arrested, too, as a member of a secret political society. The conviction of two successive chiefs of the Model Chamber drew to the museum the ill disposition of those in powers.
In 1827, during the course of periodic reforms in the Navy, the Museum passed under the authority of the Hydrographic Depot, which wanted some of the rooms in the building of the Admiralty. The Chief of the Depot Major-General F. F. Schubert found the room occupied by the Maritime Museum best fit for his department. General Schubert informed Emperor Nicholas I that the Maritime Museum ‘…is of little use, as there are many articles that have nothing to do with navigation…’ On October 19, 1827 Nicholas I sent his decree on disbanding the museum. The Emperor visited the museum several times and had a clear idea of the diversity of museum collections. As Nicholas I thought of himself as of an expert in seamanship and museum business as well, he would go into detail to decide the fate of the Naval Museum collections.