Our arts contributor, Bonnie Buyuklieva, marvels at the treasures on show at the Science Museum’s latest exhibition, The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution.
If you’ve come for some royal splendour and one of the greatest murder mysteries of the past century, then the Science Museum’s The Last Tsar: Blood & Revolution is just the ticket. But while you’re here, why not find out about the science behind the scandal?
Curated by Dr. Natalia Sidlina and assisted by Sasha Smirnova and Lottie Dodwell, the exhibition showcases the private lives, history and forensic science that settled the mysterious disappearance of Russia’s last ruling dynasty. The collection of mostly private artefacts comes with stunning, life-sized oil portraits of the royals and fanciful Fabergé Easter Eggs that make the Science Museum give the V&A a run for its money.
Blood & Revolution is divided into two visually distinct themes. The first part is coloured in crimson red reminiscent of Bolshevik propaganda, which is grimly apt considering the haemophilic gene that ran through the Tsarina’s family. In this first section we are introduced to the Romanovs through their private photographs and the various medical items of the time. An interesting contrast is made between the royals’ rigid credence to imperial tradition, and their affection for photography (a new and increasingly popular technology in the 19thc) as well as their desperate need for the latest innovations in medicine. Key themes are the Tsarina’s difficulty to conceive and, of course, the rare genetic disorder of their only male heir, Alexei.
In addition to infertility and haemophilia, the exhibition adopts an interesting angle on the historical account of the Romanovs’ lives by incorporating the theme of mental health. This is done by providing details of the Tsarina’s medical diary, which includes accounts of her issues with anxiety and a personal mood tracker (much like the ones that are popular today). Sidlina and her fellow curators include a more general view of mental health with a parallel section on the Trubetskoy Bastion, a political prison created to mentally disturb its rebellious inmates, some of which included Lenin’s older brother and the Soviet leader Leon Trotsky.
The second part of The Last Tsar is presented in a lifeless, pale grey. It forms an account of the investigation which pieced together the grim events that occurred in Ipative House, Ekaterinburg, during the summer of 1918. The curators include artefacts from the estate, but more interestingly, an evidence board summarising the crime scene report and an overview of the DNA analysis (done by forensic geneticist Professor. Peter Gill in the 1990s) are also on show. Particularly moving is the investigation photograph capturing the basement wall damaged by rows of bullets fired on 17 July 1918.
The Romanovs’ story and relationship to medicine are difficult to do justice to because the family saga and the zeitgeist of the political climate is saturated with content. More focus on Princess Vera Gedroit, one of the many medical figures surrounding the royal family, could merit a whole room. Gedroit, who was a distinguished doctor, professor and the first qualified female surgeon in Russia, trained the Tsarina and her daughters as Red Cross nurses.
To narrow the scope, this exhibition takes the angle of history written by health and put to rest by modern science. It could have welcomed more detail on the impressive 3D facial reconstruction of the skulls, issues around the use of very old and unpreserved remains for profiling and the controversy around contamination of the mitochondrial samples. But maybe that is forgivable… afterall, the value of The Last Tsar: Blood & Revolution is its occasion for curiosity and the privileged view it grants us of Russia’s last ruling royal family.
The Last Tsar: Blood & Revolution runs until 24 March 2019. To book free tickets click here.