Q: WHICH London museum is currently hosting an absolutely cracking exhibition about Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia?
A: The Science Museum.
“The Science Museum?”
Yep, the Science Museum.
OK, so I have to ‘fess up here, and admit that I went through something like 80 per cent of the exhibition, The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution, completely at a loss to what it was doing in the Science Museum.
It was only in the final one-fifth, which covers the discovery, exhumation and identification of the remains of Nicholas and other members of the Imperial family, that the “Science” connection seemed to make sense.
But as I was actually leaving the museum I picked up an information booklet, specifically about the exhibition I’d just seen. From that I learned that its theme is: “the role of medicine in the lives of the Imperial family”.
And then a lot more of the exhibits started to make sense. Such as the lilac maternity dress worn by Nicholas’s wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, when she was pregnant, in the hope of producing a boy to be Nicholas’s heir.
And a section about how the Tsarina and two of her daughters, the Grand Duchesses Tatiana and Olga, volunteered with the Red Cross and earned praise for caring for injured troops during World War I. And the family’s travelling medical chest.
I’m no Romanov expert, but I’ve crossed paths with Nicholas II throughout my life. At primary school, thanks to a reading textbook, I got bewitched by the Fabergé eggs that Nicholas gave to Alexandra each Easter, and the sheer drama of a royal family that had met a mysterious fate (the remains had not been found back then).
At secondary school, the Russian Revolution was part of the History A-Level syllabus, and at university, Russia during WWI featured on the periphery of my (history) degree course.
Two decades ago I visited Yekaterinberg. I went to the site of the Ipatiev House, where the Imperial family had been executed, and Ganina Yama, officially recognised as the unofficial burial place of the Tsar (even though it isn’t). And two years ago, while writing up my visit for this blog, I learned the incredible tale of about how the remains came to be found and identified.
Like I said, all this in no way makes me an authority on the Romanovs, but it did mean that most of the ‘facts’ given in the exhibition were not new to me. Such as the political problems caused when the Tsarina, feeling failed by conventional doctors, turned to spiritual leaders, like Rasputin, for help. And how, when an heir finally came along, the Tsarevich Alexei, he had haemophilia, but this was hushed up, so as not to destabilise the country.
However, I had only ever considered these in terms of “political” history – how they affected the general course of events – before, and never really given much (OK, any) thought to the people involved. Say, how difficult it must have been for this woman who ostensibly had everything, to be beset by ‘health’ (ie, possibly mental health) problems, and how frustrated she must have been to have access to the very best doctors, yet even they were unable to help her.
Or, given the upheavals of the early 20th Century for Russia, from the Russo-Japanese war to the unrest and pressure for change at home around the 1905 Revolution, how alarming it would have been for the Tsar to have such a very vulnerable heir.
Not only did the exhibition make me think more deeply about things I already knew, it also taught me something new as well: that there are near-contemporaneous accounts of the investigations into the fate of the Tsar and his family in our (UK) National Archives; expect more on them anon…
And now, despite the best journalist practice, where you’re supposed to get the ‘best’ bits in first (to grab the reader’s attention, and, especially during the glory days of print, so you don’t run out of room before you’ve had chance to include them) I have actually saved what I consider the highlight of the exhibition till last (and when you consider that exhibition includes two Fabergé eggs, that’s really saying something!). What I would possibly describe as the jewel in the crown of this exhibition about the Imperial family.
It is a selection of photographs taken by Herbert Galloway Stewart, English tutor to the Tsar’s nephew. They’re not formal portraits, but the sort of informal snaps that only someone close to the family could take: the children playing in the snow, family boating trips, that kind of thing. Even, if I remember rightly (photography isn’t allowed in the exhibition) Nicholas doing the carpentry that kept him occupied during his months under house arrest between his abdication in March 1917 and death in July 1918.
As far as I can gather, they’ve never been exhibited before, and, according to a post on the Museum website, they actually inspired the exhibition – after they were found in the Museum’s collection by a curator researching another show. It’s a pretty awesome story, and you can read it – and more information about the exhibition, here.
I could be wrong on this, but having read the blog post and the booklet, I’m wondering whether someone at the museum thought: “Hmm, we’ve got this amazing resource [the Stewart photographs]. We really have to use them. Now, how can we contrive something science-y to put them in?”
If that sounds like I’m criticising the museum for, in a way, engineering (‘scuse the pun), an exhibition, I’m sorry, because that’s the last thing I’m thinking; I’m just really grateful to the curator who found the albums, Dr Natalia Sidlina, and everyone else who devised an excuse for making them public.
Considering the amount and quality of the stuff in the room (Fabergé eggs, for goodness sake!) it’s surprising that entry is free. You’re supposed to book tickets in advance, probably so it doesn’t get too crowded. But while I was there, admittedly mid-week and almost closing time, the only visitors other than me were a couple who were munching their way through a family-sized bag of crisps (yes, really!) as they ambled along. I hope it’s busier than that as other times – it so absolutely deserves to be. (It’s so good I am seriously thinking about making another trip to London just to see it again.)
Here’s an interesting footnote: the exhibition is sponsored by JSC Russian Railways, the state railway of Russia. During Soviet times, of course, it was the state that tried to pretty much airbrush out of existence the fate of the former Imperial family – so much so that the people who found the remains had to keep their discovery to themselves until the end of the Soviet era. Now the state is sponsoring a major – and very public – exhibition about their untimely deaths. How times change, eh?
The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution runs until 24 March. More details and booking info here.
(ps. Go see it! You’ll kick yourself if you don’t!)