Art and Evolutionary Bio-politics: The Moscow Darwin Museum in the 1920s-1930s

Project: Research

Project Details

Layman's description

This project explores the relationship between art and evolutionary bio-politics at the Darwin Museum, Moscow (DMM), in the 1920s-30s.It centres on the work of artist and scientist Vasilii Vatagin, virtually unknown in the West, but whose status in Russia is akin to that of C.R. Knight, an artist famous for his work in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).Of focal interest is a bust of Francis Galton, donated by the DMM to the American Galton Society and exhibited at the 3rd International Eugenics Congress at the AMNH in 1932.The main objective is to enlarge western knowledge of Vatagin, and to locate his work in the context of Soviet debates about ape research, genetics, eugenics, and Lamarckian-style interpretations of Darwin during the 1920s-1930s, by investigating the creation, donation, and current whereabouts of the bust.The trail leads from the archives of the DMM, to the archives of the AMNH, the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University, and the American Philosophical Society Library.The published outcomes will be of interest to scholars and the general public.

Key findings

1. The research suggests that eugenics discourse was a sort of an international mycelium connecting bio-scientists and Darwinian scholars in the USA, UK, USSR, Europe and beyond in the 1920s-1930s – and possibly beyond - and demonstrates some concrete documentation of this. The research will add significant data for consideration to the contemporary discussions of the impact of eugenics discourse on scientific cultures in a range of countries, most particularly in Russia and Central/Eastern Europe.

2. The research also strongly suggests that both international and Soviet eugenics discourse can be argued to have had some impact on the import, and even the content and appearance of the displays at the Darwin Museum Moscow. One example of this is the mode of representing Cro-Magnon man in a ‘reconstructive’ painting (1921) by Vatagin. Cro Magnon was regarded by contemporary scientists as the ‘first artist’ and the first human. Vatagin’s painting – as does an image by C. R. Knight at the AMNH - speculatively presents this specimen as a ‘nordic’ type, blonde, muscled and healthy with aquiline facial features. This is a topic that clearly needs further investigation.

3. In relation to this, questions arise regarding the possible parallels that might be made with the displays of this period within natural history museums, not only in the USSR, but elsewhere in the world (apart from AMNH).

4. Evidently there will follow an increase in western knowledge and understanding of the work of the artist Vasili Vatagin. This is an important consideration, not only because some of his works are becoming available on the western art market, and thus require the availability of detailed, scholarly work about him and his work, but also because the research has revealed that there are a number of sculptural and graphic works by Vatagin [as well as by other Soviet artists] that were sent to a number of museum destinations in the UK in the late 1950s-early 1960s.

Effective start/end date1/03/1128/02/13


  • The British Academy: £6,053.00


Explore the research topics touched on by this project. These labels are generated based on the underlying awards/grants. Together they form a unique fingerprint.