Chambers from a fairy-tale: Renovating the Biology Museum

August 6
Construction and renovation

The Kliment Timiryazev Biology Museum supervised by the Moscow Department of Culture is awaiting renovation. The statement of works has been approved by the Moscow Department of Cultural Heritage. The museum is based in the former Pyotr Shchukin manor. Shchukin was a merchant and the largest collector of Russian antiques in the late 19th century in Russia. During Shchukin’s time, the estate was home to his private museum of Russian antiques with exhibits representing old Russian households and art.  

Several Neo-Russian brick buildings built in the late 19th and early 20th century are located on the manor grounds. The museum occupies two buildings at 15 bld. 1, 2 Malaya Gruzinskaya Street.

“Pyotr Shchukin’s former estate is a remarkable example of Neo-Russian or, as it is often called, Pseudo-Russian style. The style borrows from the traditions of older Russian architecture and folk art. Despite the fact that the buildings have different designers who worked in different eras, both buildings resemble fairy-tale terems (old Russian living chambers). By the way, they are connected by a secret underground passage. The passage, the fence and the main entrance gate of the former manor will also be renovated,” said Alexei Yemelyanov, Head of the Department of Cultural Heritage.

What makes Neo-Russian style stand out

The buildings on the manor grounds are formally qualified as the old museum (building 2) and the new museum (building 1). The old museum, designed in 1892 by architect Boris Freidenberg (also known as Bernhard Freudenberg), is located at the back of the estate and currently serves as the administrative building for the Biology Museum. This two-floor rectangular building with pavilion tiled roof and careen-shaped ogee gables is decorated with small towers, pipes and dormer windows.

The ground floor is finished with diamond-pointed rustication that imitates multifaceted masonry. The façade is embellished with ornamental tiles, moulding and brick arched niches.

The new museum (building 1) faces Malaya Gruzinskaya Street. Today the building hosts the permanent exhibition of the Biology Museum. It is a two-floor structure with avant-corps, towers, a pavilion roof and cresting. The building was designed after the old museum in 1896 by Adolf Erichson. The façade is generously decorated with moulding and ornamentation such as a blind arcade below the cornice, whorled and smooth semi-columns with beads. The window and door openings in both buildings are framed with various types of aprons.

Both the old and new museums have brick porches decorated with columns with an unusual barrel shape with a wider middle section. All these elements are typical for the Neo-Russian style in architecture.

Maxim Denisov,

Vaulted ceilings are a particularly remarkable part of the equally opulent interiors. The grand staircase in the old museum has an intricate metal railing while the staircase in the new museum is guarded with railing made of white Italian marble. Both staircases are tiled with marble featuring mosaic elements.

The interior walls are adorned with barrel-shaped columns, arches with plummets, versatile moulding and natural-stone décor.

A fence separates the former manor from Malaya Gruzinskaya Street. Adolf Erichson designed the main entrance in 1898 in the same Neo-Russian style as the museum buildings. Six brick posts are topped with ornamental crowns shaped like kokoshniks (a traditional Russian woman’s headgear), with intricate forged latticework. On the right side, the fence is adjacent to a brick arch with a pavilion roof. Unlike the main entrance, the extension of the fence on the left has a simple and inconspicuous design.

Maxim Denisov,

Past and present treasures of the fairy-tale chambers

Pyotr Shchukin bought the land plot with two wooden houses on Malaya Gruzinskaya Street in 1891.

The merchant had a terem built specifically for his enormous antique collection, which later became the “old museum.” In 1895, the chambers were opened to public visits, with commentary offered by the manor owner himself.

The collection was famous for its diversity. Weapons, fabrics, carpets, paintings, engravings, churchware, crockery and other treasures were among the exhibits on display. The library was the museum’s gem. Many prominent artists of the time, including Viktor Vasnetsov, Valentin Serov and Vasily Surikov, loved working on their art in the museum quarters.

The collection continued to grow and the museum walls eventually became too small for it. Another museum building was built in 1898 and was connected to the old museum by an underground tunnel. It was not until 1905 (the year the museum storage facility was built) that the manor grounds were finished. Pyotr Shchukin donated his collection, the land plot and the real estate to the History Museum the same year.

After Pyotr Shchukin’s death in 1912, the museum was closed and the exhibits were gradually moved to the History Museum.

Since 1934, the estate buildings have served as the administrative and exhibition facilities for the Kliment Timiryazev Biology Museum. Today the Biology Museum is the only biology museum in Moscow covering all areas of biology. The museum sections include Nature and Humans, the Animal World, the World of Plants, Animal Physiology and Anatomy, Mushrooms, Plant Physiology, Evolution Theory, Evolution of Life on Earth, Anthropogenesis and Evolution, and others. There are several landscape dioramas, including a Mixed Forest, Bird Colonies and Desert Sands – all created in the 1950s.

An interactive exhibition titled Watch Out is dedicated to the mystery of human and animal vision. Visitors can try a scientific experiment in the Transparent Science lab where they are welcome to use microscopes, conduct chemical experiments and see laboratory animals.

Museum renovation

The historical appearance of both the new and old museums has been preserved almost fully. However, this will be their first comprehensive renovation. Restoration workers will reinforce the foundation and brickwork of the walls, repair the roofs, and restore the original windows, doors and fixtures. Relying on archive materials, they will also recreate some lost components – for example, a tower with a two-headed eagle on top, a weather vane, metal fences and dormer windows. Restoration artists will also  repair the moulding and stone decorations on the façade, recreate door aprons and clean up the stone windowsills made of marble and limestone.

The façade of the old museum. Late 19th century. Courtesy of the Timiryazev State Biology Museum archive

As for the interior, restoration is needed for the ornamental murals, wall and vault surfaces, ornamental doorways and mouldings. Specialists will also replace destroyed marble floor tiles with mosaics.

The underground passage between the new and the old museum needs a new floor; the plaster on the walls and arches needs to be updated. Renovation of the fence will include waterproofing and brickwork reinforcement.

The new and old museums are cultural heritage sites of federal importance which means that the restoration work will be performed in strict compliance with the statement of works approved by the Department of Cultural Heritage under its close supervision.

The tunnel leading to the new museum. 1906

Boris Freidenberg (born before 1850 — died after 1917) was a Russian architect and master of the eclectic and Neo-Russian style. He designed buildings for Moscow merchants, mainly on Neglinnaya Street and near Kitai-Gorod. Some of his projects include the Sandunov Baths (14 bld. 3 Neglinnaya Street), the Moscow Merchant Society building (8–10 Novaya Ploshchad) and the Moscow Alexander II School of Commerce (19 Znamenka Street).

Adolf Erichson (1862–1940) was a Russian architect of Swedish origin and master of Art Nouveau. He also created Neo-Russian, Neo-Classical and eclectic architecture. Some of his creations include the Nikolai Tretyakov manor (14 Sushchevskaya Street), the Moscow Central Telephone Station of the Swedish-Danish-Russian Telephone Stock Company (5 Milyutinsky Pereulok) and the Junker and Co. bank and trading house (16/5 Kuznetsky Most Street).

Restoring and preserving architectural landmarks in Moscow is a priority of the Department of Cultural Heritage. Many landmarks get a new lease of life being adapted for modern uses while the city’s historical look is preserved. More than 1,400 cultural heritage sites have been restored in Moscow since 2011, including 203 in 2019.


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