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Saint-Petersburg Model Chamber (1709-1730)


When the European nations were building their regular navies, making, collecting and storing ship models became a matter of state importance. The development of shipbuilding was ruled by “natural selection”, poorly designed ships were not used, those that performed well were used as models for the building of new ships. Drawings and scale models standardized the ship-building experience. In the 17th and 18th centuries, storage rooms for scale models and drawings were established at shipyards in Europe. These storage rooms were called differently in different places, like ‘construction chambers’ or ‘model galleries’. In Russia the term ‘model chamber’ was adopted (from the Dutch «model-kammer», a storage room for scale models). Involved in the collecting, storage and description of ships, these model chambers performed several museum functions. Still, they were not proper museums, and were inaccessible for the general public and fulfilled the ship-building obligations not typical for a museum.

The date when the Saint-Petersburg Model Chamber was first mentioned in records is considered its birthday. It was on January 24, 1709 when Peter I who at the time was with his army in the Ukraine, sent instructions to A. V. Kikin, reading, ‘Take the Model Chamber out of my house and place it by the shipyard, wherever a proper place is available…’ The date of establishing is taken conventionally, as from Peter’s letter we can understand that it had existed earlier. It possibly appeared soon after Saint-Petersburg had been founded and was to cater for the Crownwork and Admiralty shipyards and were the first shipbuilding enterprises to appear in the city. Peter’s letter mentioned the first Winter Palace, which actually was a private house, often referred to as ‘the house of shipbuilder Peter Mikhailov’, not as a Royal residence. It was a small log structure “of Dutch architecture” with no more than ten rooms inside, designed by D. Tresini.

No surprise that between 1708 and 1709 the Model Chamber was located in Peter’s Winter House. Shipbuilding was among his strongest passions and for some time he might have kept the ship models in his home. This suspicion is amplified by the fact that in summer the Winter House was very likely uninhabited. This location was anyway very convenient with the Admiralty shipyard and the Crownwork across the Neva River nearby.

It should be noted that Peter I used the word “Model Chamber” to imply a draft office with a loft and not as a drawing and ship model storage. A loft is a huge well-lit room with the smooth floor made of thick thoroughly shaven boards, painted black. Ship outlines and elements are drawn in full size on the floor as if on a draft board. A scale drawing produced by a designer on a sheet of paper gives just a concept of the ship’s hull outlines but shipbuilders want a drawing with all elements presented in their natural size. And so, these life-size drawings are made in the loft. Models for the shipyard to produce ship framing elements were drawn on the loft floor. In the 18th century (and nowadays as well) the word ‘model’ meant a small copy of a ship, or mechanism, or building, and also a mould or template. Peter I used ‘Model Chamber’ to denote the shop producing moulds. Thus in Peter’s time the Model Chamber was not a collection of museum items, but a kind of a design bureau for the shipbuilding industry. Production models and drawings required for lofting were stored at the Model Chamber, too. It is known that drawings were copied and bound into albums there. At the Russian shipyards, there were areas allotted for storing drawings, books, tools and office correspondence. When lofting was done, drawings and small ship copies were taken for reference. The collection of design models had to be kept near the loft as both made integral parts of the design and construction process for every ship.

The scale of ship construction increased rapidly. In 1709, the first Baltic fleet battleship designed by Peter I, was supposed to be laid down at the Admiralty shipyard. It was the 54-gun Poltava. Before the construction of a big ship was able to commence, lofting had to be done and the Tsar’s apartments were too small for the job. It became clear that the Model Chamber had to be re-located as close to the building as possible. The Model Chamber was moved and re-arranged several times thereafter but never left the shipyard.

Peter I legally secured that the collection of the shipbuilding design documents be increased on a systematical basis. A shipbuilder in charge of the construction was to make a scaled half-model and after the ship was launched, the model together with the drawings had to come to the storage.

The Saint-Petersburg Model Chamber was placed under the supervision of the Chief Surveyor. He was in charge of everything pertaining to shipbuilding. Office work was done there, too. The documents of the time referred to the Model Chamber as the loft and also the whole department were under the supervision of the Chief Surveyor. The Regulations of Administering the Admiralty and Shipyard established in 1722, transferred the department into the Chief Surveyor’s Office. It was there where the collection of models and drawings took its shape. Until required for lofting, most of drawings and models would find temporary storage in the Model Chamber (Draft Dept). Then they came to the Surveyor’s Office for storage. It was the Chief Surveyor’s Office that took the resposibility to bring together and keep the shipbuilding collections after the Regulations of 1722 were adopted. There drawings and models of ships and of various shipyard structures were placed as well.