Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Darwin Haven for Restless Natives

If the natives are getting restless toward the end of their summer vacation, there's a perfect place to take them: the Darwin Museum.

The museum has opened an interactive Art and Animals exhibition, featuring works by famous Russian wildlife illustrators who have worked for the Darwin throughout its history. Families can come both to see the museum's famous exhibits of stuffed animals and to compete in a drawing contest. Easels, paper and pens will be provided so that visitors of any age and ability can draw their favorite pets and exhibits right in the museum's halls.

The Darwin Museum, founded in 1907 by biologist Alexander Kots, is one of the oldest and largest museums of evolution in the world. Kots called his museum "the Tretyakov gallery of biology," because in addition to its nature exhibits -- stuffed birds and animals, mollusk shells and corals -- it houses Russia's richest collection of wildlife art.

Like many other Russian museums, the Darwin has a vast permanent collection, but it can exhibit only 2 percent of its actual holdings at any one time. To show visitors the treasures hidden in its archives, the museum plans to stage a number of exhibitions this year. The Art and Animals exhibit is one of the first in this sequence.

"At this exhibit we decided to break with a long-held principle of arranging expositions in our museum," said Vera Udaltsova, an organizer of the exhibition.

"Normally, the stuffed animals play the leading role in the displays, and the works of art play the part of noble decoration. This time, however, we strove to put the emphasis on the paintings, graphics and sculptures," she said.

Pictures of animals by famous Russian wildlife illustrators, some dating back to the end of the 19th century, are surrounded by stuffed models of the same animals. For example, an anatomically correct but emotionally neutral stuffed primate stands near masterful portraits of a seemingly sad and thoughtful baboon and a sculpture of a smiling mandrill by Vasily Vatagin.

Works by Vatagin -- a patriarch of Russian wildlife illustration and 40-year veteran of the museum -- comprise the central part of the exhibition. The Darwin holds the largest collection of works by Vatagin, whose other efforts at capturing the mysteries of animals can be seen at the Tretyakov Gallery and at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.

In addition to oil paintings, watercolors, drawings and sculptures, the Vatagin exhibit features the artist's illustrations to the 1936 edition of Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Books. The illustrations seem even more impressive when displayed next to a stuffed jackal and the outstretched skin of a fallen tiger.

Also on display are works by Veniamin Belyshev, well known in Russia as the illustrator of textbooks and children's books such as "The Ugly Duckling," "They're All Cats" and stories by Leo Tolstoy and Seton Thompson.

Works by sculptor Boris Vorobyov, who for most of his life worked at a Leningrad china factory, may arouse nostalgia in many visitors: The porcelain statues of martens, small deer and tigers were popular decorative items in Soviet homes several decades ago. Thousands of the items were factory-produced and accessible to many consumers. The works in the exhibition are the author's originals.

"They look as if they really came to sit for him," Udaltsova said of the china animals.

Along with works by renowned masters, whose art is already acknowledged among Russian wildlife illustrators, pieces by more modern representatives of the genre -- such as sculptors Marina Ostrovskaya and Dmitry Uspensky -- are displayed.

Sergei Peshekhonov, a young artist and graduate of the Stroganov Art College, designed the exhibition and presented it with his illustrations to the newly published book "Birds of Moscow." (The book, supplemented with an audio tape containing songs of different birds, is now on sale at the museum.)

A favorite among the youngest visitors to the museum is a collection of stuffed animals dressed in costumes of famous fairy-tale characters, such as Petushok-Zolotoi Grebeshok, the Rooster with the Golden Comb; Lisichka-Sestrichka, the Little Sister Fox; and Soroka-Beloboka, The White-Winged Magpie.

"We thought it wouldn't be interesting to identify the stuffed animals with the normal signs like 'an ordinary hare' or 'a domestic rooster' next to the illustrations to the folk tales," said Olga Marshalkova, a taxidermist for the museum who not only restored the stuffed animals, but also made the dresses herself.

The fairy-tale characters are not the only attraction that will enchant children; the drawing contest, which will run through September, immediately became popular among the museum's youngest guests, said Urana Kuular, who works in public relations for the museum.

According to Kuular, every two weeks, the best works will be selected for exhibition in the hall, with winners receiving prizes at the end of September.

"Since we have participants of various ages, we won't be judging on the professional qualities in determining the results," said Peshekhonov, who will judge the contest along with other artists. "It's more important for us to see that a person has put his or her soul into the picture, no matter how close it may be to the original."

The Darwin Museum, 57 Ulitsa Vavilova, tel. 135-3382, nearest metro: Akademicheskaya. Open daily except Monday and the last Friday of the month from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is 7 rubles ($1.15) for adults, 3 rubles (50 cents) for students; no charge for children under age 7.