The All-Russian EthnographicExhibition of Ethnography of 1867, also known as the Russian Ethnographic Exhibition, or the Ethnographic Exhibition of the Imperial Society of Devotees of Natural Science, Anthropology and Ethnography, was the first large-scale exhibition project in the history of the Russian Empire that gave a powerful impulse to the development of Russian scholarship (in ethnography, anthropology, archeology, history, etc.) and scholarly societies, as well as photography and museums in Russia.

The originality of the exhibition was manifest on every level, including the planning process, time and venue, and the range of topics presented to the public — from illustrative displays with mannequins representing “the tribes of Russia and neighboring Slavic lands” to the general ethnographic section, showcasing photography as an integral part of the exhibition, which was an innovative approach in both Russia and the world.

The choice to display photography in a separate section drew attention to its documentary, cultural and historical importance and relevance for the time. The depicted faces and events acquired new meanings, allowing the Muscovite public to glimpse into life in different parts of the empire in the 1860s, of which they mostly had a very vague idea.

The photographic section became one of the highlights of the exhibition, making history already at the stage of planning, and yet one cannot regard it separately from the entire exhibition.

The scope of the exhibition, open to the public from 23 April to 19 June 1867 in the very center of Moscow in the so-called “exercise house,” or Manege, the number of represented ethnicities, and the vast territorial coverage impressed both Russian and foreign public. The dignity and realism of the exhibition produced an impression on the members of the Imperial family as well: on 24 April 1867 it was visited by Emperor Alexander II with his wife Maria Feodorovna, and Crown Prince Alexander Alexandrovich.

The Manege was turned into a huge exhibition venue, housing three large sections: the section for “displays of the tribes inhabiting Russia and neighboring Slavic lands”; the general ethnographic section, which “showcased costumes and their parts… objects of domestic life… a collection of lubok pictures, albums, drawings, photographs”; and the anthropological section, which “included a collection of skulls and bones, both modern and ancient, a collection of anatomical preparations, anthropological tools.” The exhibition space was a symbolic representation of the vast expanses of Imperial Russia and peoples populating it. Each ethnic group, represented by mannequin figures (295 in total) in anthropologically accurate national costumes, was shown in an authentic environment; scenes including real household items were set up to show the most striking aspects of their everyday life (occupations, dwelling, crafts) or communal events, such as fairs, wedding ceremonies, rituals, etc.

A significant part of the general ethnographic section, designed, according to the organizers’ intention, for a more sophisticated audience and researchers, was the Photographs, Albums, and Drawings section. More than 3,000 items were exhibited in total, of which about 1,500 were photographs.

The originality of the artistic vision made it possible to showcase the culture of various ethnic groups from the North to the South, the large-scale panorama of their life attracting an unprecedented number of visitors for that time — over 83,000.

The period of exhibition planning lasted for almost two years (from 1865 to 1867). However, the elaborate work of the Exhibition Committee, chaired by D. A. Dashkov, and the active participation of P. A. Bogdanov, who had initiated the project, immediately drew attention to the importance of ethnographic knowledge and ethnography as a discipline in general, as well as to the role of photography as an increasingly relevant medium for ethnographic field work. At the early stages of planning, Dashkov and Bogdanov managed to articulate the basic criteria for selecting objects for the exhibit.

During the years 1865–1866, an enormous effort was made to collect the objects. Some purchases were made at the expense of joint funds, some acquisitions were funded by the Imperial family, statesmen, and members of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society. But for the most part, the exhibition would be made up of artifacts gathered by members of OLEAE (Society of Devotees of Natural Science, Anthropology and Ethnography), famous scholars, travelers, representatives of the nobility, merchants, and intellectuals. 

At one of the first meetings of the Committee, Professor of Sculpture N. A. Ramazanov proposed to collect photographic records (portraits, full-length and half-length, full-face and profile) in order to base anthropological mannequins on these images. The proposal was accepted. The question of the importance of such practical use of photography did not arise by chance. In 1850s, photographic market in Russia was in active formation; photographic exhibitions for broad public audiences began to gain more and more popularity (in 1856, stereoscopic photographs from Berlin were shown for the first time; in 1859, works from Rural Life series by the famous photographer W. Carrick were on display at the Academy of Arts); the Imperial Public Library began its collection of Russian photographs. 

The use of photography in various fields of research was getting more and more widespread and popular. In line with the trend, in January 1866, a special committee on photography was set up within the Exhibition Committee. Merchant Nikandr Matveyevich Alasin, the owner of the famous Russian Photography studio and the first holder of the state award among Moscow photographers, was invited to be Chairman.

The organizing committee received a great number of submissions (almost 1,500 photographs including those of “foreign” Slavs), many of them of exceptional quality. The result was beyond the expectations of the organizers, who highly appreciated not only their importance for research purposes and artistic value but also their broad thematic scope that exceeded the original objectives of the project.

To a certain extent, the photographs served as a kind of self-presentation of territories and local clusters of provinces of the Russian Empire, as well as Slavic peoples living in the Austrian and Ottoman empires. These photographic collections were self-sufficient enough to be showcased in a separate section of the exhibition. The organizers made the right and, in fact, only possible decision to create an addition to the ethnographic section, designed mainly for researchers. During the planning process, all photographs were arranged by ethnicity. First went the ethnic minorities of the north-western governorates (except the Lithuanians), the Volga Region and the steppes of the Astrakhan and Orenburg governorates, the Kovno and Vilna governorates, then the “Great Russians,” the Belarusians, the “Little Russians,” the Russians of Galicia, Hungary, Lublin and Siedlce governorates, “foreign” Slavs (Poles, Slovenes, Slovaks, Czechs, Croats, Montenegrins, Serbs, Bulgarians), followed by ethnic minorities of the Bessarabian Governorate and Crimea, Armenians, German colonists, Romani people, Jews, indigenous peoples of Transcaucasia and Dagestan. A subsection was devoted to “Photographs of Groups of Primitive Peoples,” including the Japanese and Annamites, from the Crystal Palace at Sydenham near London. Finally, there was an “Appendix” — probably missed or late-delivered photographs by I. N. Brandenburg of the Nekrasovians, Estonians, and Serbs. Some images of single ethnicities were grouped by territory and exponent. For instance, “12–18. Samoyeds of Kaninskaya tundra, Mezensky Uyezd, Arkhangelsk Governorate. Exponent: artist I. N. Brandenburg. <…> 36–38. The Karelians of Olonets Governotate. From Olonets Statistical Committee. <…> 195–230. Mordva in Nizhny Novgorod Governorate. Exponent: photographer B. Barro; 231–232. Mordva of Penza Governorate. From S. I. Selivanova,” etc.

To each group of photographs a label was attached to indicate the place of occurrence and the source of the collection. Almost all photographs had hand-written inscriptions of ethnicity (except for “Great Russians,” the dominant nation of the empire), other data, as was mentioned above, varied. Furthermore, for the convenience of visitors, all photographs were numbered in accordance with the catalog: typographically printed numbers were glued to the lower right corner of each photograph.

In fact, the photographic section could be called an ethnographic photo exhibition in itself: all of the fifteen hundred photographs were presented to the public. Taken together, they formed a single collection, “abundant and remarkable in execution,” that provided insight into the diversity and plentifulness of “types” belonging to various social strata (many models were photographed both at full-face and profile angles) and, in a certain context, into the lives of particular individuals representing both known and yet unfamiliar peoples of the empire or the Slavs of Europe. In addition, some of the images shed light on what it was like to live in the Russian Empire: dwelling, occupations, tools, means of transportation, rituals, etc. 

The effort of exponents and photographers was properly rewarded by the organizing committee. The highest awards (honorary addresses) were given to Prince V. A. Cherkassky, M. F. Raevsky and P. P. Muromtsev. All participating statistical committees, the Galician-Russian People’s House in Lviv, the Serbian Learned Society in Belgrade, the ataman of the Ural Cossack Army N. A. Verevkin, the chief administrator of the Kalmyk people K. I. Kostenkov, and A. M. Raevskaya got 2nd-rank honorary awards. Gold medals were awarded to P. P. Muromtsev, the Russian Photography studio in Moscow, and photographer B. Barro, while major silver medals were awarded to Ya. F. Golovatsky, L. V. Dahl, Borhardt, Brandenburg, and P. F. Simonenko, and a minor silver medal was awarded to M. F. Kustsinsky.

After the exhibition, all of its unique content, including photographic collections, laid the foundation of the new collection within the Moscow Public and Rumyantsev Museum, called Dashkov Museum, of which Vladimir Dashkov was appointed head in 1867. 

In 1923, the collections of the Public and Rumyantsev Museum were included in the Moscow Central Museum of People’s History (also known as the USSR Peoples’ Museum). Later, after the Museum was disbanded in 1948, its ethnographic collections (including the Archive of Photographs) were transferred to the State Museum of Ethnography (since 1992, the Russian Museum of Ethnography). Presently, the Russian Museum of Ethnography holds a large part of the photographic collection: more than 900 items. The museum also holds a collection of unique photographs by the Danish photographer T. L. Mitreiter: 262 photographs of mannequins and exhibition views (of which only one is monochrome, the rest were hand-colored by the photographer’s wife, M. A. Mitreiter).

Unprecedented both in national and world history, the collection of photographs from the All-Russian Ethnographic Exhibition of 1867 marked the beginning of a visual chronicle of the peoples populating the Russian Empire. The exhibition, organized by joint effort of members of various social strata, gave a powerful impetus to the development of ethnographic research incorporating the use of photography as its integral part. Well-conceived ways of representing the culture of indigenous peoples in remote areas (primarily, Siberia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia) in portraits, landscapes and genre shots let photography develop as an independent medium, raising the popularity and relevance of the ethnographic genre that last up to the present time.

Karina Solovyova
Russian Museum of Ethnography
Head of Department of Photography, Curator of Museum Photo Library

Information partners: