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Home » Paleontological Museum in Moscow: A Brutalist Marvel Shaped Like an Ancient Fortress

Paleontological Museum in Moscow: A Brutalist Marvel Shaped Like an Ancient Fortress

History

In 1944, the Museum and Institute of Paleontology was headed by Yu.A. Orlov. Thanks to successful fieldwork and excavations, the paleontological collections were constantly being replenished. Finding space for new interesting discoveries in the exhibition became increasingly difficult, and the cramped quarters became practically unsuitable for museum work. In 1954, the Museum had to be closed, much to the disappointment of its staff and visitors.

Academician Yu.A. Orlov was convinced that the Museum needed its own spacious home, where its unique collections could be fully displayed. In 1965, after overcoming a series of many years of difficulties, he obtained a decision from the USSR government to create a new Paleontological Museum and allocate two million rubles to solve this problem. In 1966, following the sudden death of Yu.A. Orlov, the Museum was named in his honor.

The building project was specifically developed for the Museum by the GIPRONII of the USSR Academy of Sciences, under the leadership of Yu.P. Platonov. The design was approved in 1968 and subsequently received the USSR State Prize. However, construction only started in 1972. Leading scientific researchers from the Paleontological Institute and a creative team that included architects, structural engineers, designers, and Moscow’s finest animal artists worked nearly two decades to create the new Paleontological Museum. Thanks to their collective efforts, a unique museum ensemble was established, unparalleled in global practice. The museum’s red-brick building, styled in Brutalism, resembles an ancient fortress with a central inner courtyard, around which four exhibition zones are located, each with an adjoining tower.

The museum welcomed its first visitors in 1987. Since then, it has been one of the largest scientific and educational centers in Moscow. Despite the fact that the building took over 20 years to construct, it was made almost entirely according to the original plan — save for the decision to forgo the use of Moscow white stone for cladding. It’s hard to say that the building bears the mark of any particular era; it is outside of time — perhaps not about eternity, but about eternal permafrost. To break the inevitable monotony of a museum (especially one like this), the towers were intended to serve as contrasting elements in the layout. One was to feature a diorama about life in water, while another, through transparent partitions, was to allow visitors to watch paleontologists assembling animals from fragments (this was the “assembly” tower). Lastly, another tower was to offer an unexpected transition from the dark, low amber hall into a space 15 meters high, where a giant hadrosaur (duck-billed lizard) would ‘walk’ toward the viewer.

Plan of the museum (c) darriuss.livejournal.com

Alas, the towers (except for one) never came to life in this way, but the artists approached the project not as jobbers or illustrators, but as true creators. The art here comes in all sorts: white stone reliefs with elegantly outlined animal shadows, collections of mollusk species gathered in an iconostasis, Gzhel ceramics with herds of animals, and paintings stylized like Paleolithic cave art.

Additionally, there are 17 portraits of great scientists made of wrought copper in the entrance hall and fossil sculptures in the inner courtyard. In this courtyard, the liveliness reaches its peak: a Tarbosaurus is seen tearing into a young hadrosaur.

(c) Wikimedia

Museum Today

The Paleontological Museum today is Moscow’s hidden gem: unless you know where it is located, it’s impossible to accidentally stumble upon it as part of a standard tourist itinerary. It is still integrated with the Paleontological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, making it more of a scientific institution than a modern museum—a place for education rather than entertainment. There’s still no convenient café or souvenir shop.

The interior of the museum has hardly changed since 1987; even the labels on the exhibits still feature the toponyms of the USSR. Its collection is grandiose, and a whole day is not enough to carefully review it.

In addition to its main function — telling the story of the evolution of all living things — the museum is also perceived as a memorial to the Brezhnev era, with its heavy, as if petrifying, aesthetics. The spirit of the time is expressed in both general and specific features (for example, in the massive oak stair railings, in the huge crystal chandelier, in the four-meter-high doors). Even the exhibit viewing process is notable: there are so many display cases and they are so closely packed that one can only move between them very slowly. It’s better to “stand before” them. This sets our museum apart, for example, from the Paris Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Paleontology (opened in 1898), where the bones of ancient animals are mounted in motion, all heads are looking in the same direction, and this whole herd marches (if not to say rushes) along, captivating the viewer.

The never-realized winter garden is today simply an inner courtyard under the open sky, with snowdrifts in winter and a green lawn in summer. The dinosaur sculptures in the yard resemble forgotten theatrical props.

Conceived as part of a garden-park complex, and even with a zoo, but in the end, not accompanied by either a park or live animals, the Paleontological Museum stands like an impregnable fortress, a forgotten corner of former life, similar to the nearby “Uzkoe” sanatorium, the former estate of the Trubetskoy princes. The theme of escapism, escape from reality, was one of the key themes during the era of stagnation, and it seems that the museum has involuntarily embodied it.

  • Construction years: 1972–1989
  • Architects, engineers, artists: Yu.Platonov (project leader), L.Yakovenko, V.Kogan, V.Nagikh, T.Zevina, E.Katyshev, F.Grinyev, V.Nikitin, A.Belashov, V.Duvidov, M.Miturich-Khlebnikov, M.Favorskaya-Shakhovskaya.
  • Location: The new Paleontological Museum is situated in a scenic corner of the southwestern outskirts of the capital, at the address: Profsoyuznaya Street, 123.
  • Hours: the museum is open from Wednesday to Sunday from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Last entry to the museum is at 5:15 PM.
  • Price: the full ticket price is 400 rubles.
  • Website: www.paleo.ru

 

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