Art or Illustration? The Status of Painting and Sculpture in the Soviet Natural History Museum

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It might be said that a painting is a painting and a sculpture is a sculpture, and as such they putatively belong to the realm of ‘fine art’. Such objects, particularly when offering recognisable figurative representations and created out of traditional materials, seem clearly to declare their status and/or definition. But, what if the painting or sculpture has a useful function within a natural history museum in illuminating or illustrating the history of evolutionary theory, or, through portraiture, represents a hagiography of evolutionary theorists? Is it, therefore, a piece of decorative art because of its illustrative connotations? This is the big overarching question I open out to the panel and audience, because I do not, as yet, have any clear answers.
This paper focuses on the Moscow Darwin Museum. This natural history museum was founded in 1907 at the Higher Women’s Courses institute attached to Moscow University. Nationalised in 1917 after the Bolshevik Revolution, it still exists. The initial directors, Nadezhda Ladygina-Kots and Professor Aleksandr Kots were thoroughly committed to using art [paintings, drawings and sculpture, including taxidermy] as means to enliven the delivery of Darwinian evolutionary theory. The paper scrutinises the use of Soviet institutional acceptance of the difference between ‘fine’ and ‘decorative’ arts [illustration] by the museum directorate as a means of defence against criticism of the works shown at the museum.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2014
EventAssociation of Art Historians Conference - Kensington, London, United Kingdom
Duration: 10 Apr 201412 Apr 2014


ConferenceAssociation of Art Historians Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • Art
  • illustration
  • Darwin Museum
  • Soviet
  • Museums of Natural History
  • Aleksandr Kots
  • Vasili Vatagin


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