Officially known as the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, this was the first museum in Russia, and is one of the oldest in the world. The museum's founder, Peter the Great, had begun collecting curiosities - stuffed animals, model ships, tools and astronomical instruments. The legend says that Peter I once saw two fused birch; that gave him the idea of creating a collection of natural and human curiosities.
In 1718, The Tsar gave the order for the establishment of a 'kunstkammer' (a chamber of art), and himself enriched the collection with exhibits brought back from each of his journeys abroad. The core of the collection is still made up of exhibits collected during Peter's lifetime, including the anatomical specimens and assorted freaks prepared by the Dutch anatomist Frederick Ruysch.
In 1719, the collection was moved to the Kikin Mansion, formerly the home of the disgraced head of the Admiralty, Alexander Kikin. Here the collection was opened to the public, who were offered free admittance, and a cup of coffee or a shot of vodka as extra enticement. The museum was soon moved again, this time to its present home, purpose-built by architects Mattarnovi and Zemtsov to house the collection and the Academy of Sciences. Completed in 1734, the building was badly damaged by a fire in 1758 which also destroyed much of the original anthropological collection.
The building was restored by Savva Chevakinskiy, and the collection was quickly replenished with finds from the numerous expeditions organized by Academy. The museum became one of the world's largest collections of ethnographic artifacts, charting the histories of different peoples throughout the world.