National Historical Museum of the Republic of Belarus

History of the Museum

The Minsk Regional Museum was the first Belarusian state museum (1919-1923)

The history of the National Historical Museum started with the Minsk Regional Museum whose creation became possible after the proclamation of Belarusian soviet statehood. It was open in the former Nobility Assembly building in 1919 (the building situated at the intersection of Karla Marksa and Čyrvonaarmiejskaja streets has not been preserved). The basis of the Museum’s collection was goods of rich townspeople and szlachta.

The Soviet-Polish War brought the small Museum’s collection (1,000 pieces of art and 2,000 numismatic items as of 1921) into a poor state. But with the beginning of the Belarusization policy, attention was paid to the Museum Affairs: it was decided to create a centralized museum network in the Socialist Soviet Republic of Byelorussia (SSRB) headed by the Minsk Regional Museum.

In 1921-1922, museum employees took intensive measures to gather and inventory the collections. Among of the biggest acquisitions of that time, a collection of textiles and clothes collected by the expedition of the People's Commissariat for Education (the Narkompros) in Sluck district should be mentioned. The Museum’s collections were enriched with manuscript books, a numismatics collection and objects of religious worship from the former Minsk Church and Archaeology Museum returned from Ryazan where they had been evacuated. The Minsk Association of History and Antiquity transferred materials of archaeological excavations in Zaslauje and the reminder of the former Minsk City Museum collections there.

The state authorities paid attention to the Museum’s collection formation: the Central Executive Committee donated a collection of ancient coins, the Council of People’s Commissars donated a collection of 19th-century watercolour pieces, and the People’s Commissariat for Agriculture donated paintings and antique weapons. A number of valuable articles were donated to the Museum by the private individuals. In particular, one of the most valuable presents was made by Ilary Barashka, Central Archive of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic employee. These were items from the 1918 Minsk exhibition organized by Ivan Lutskevich and Albert Ippel.

The collections and the displays of the Museum were still forming when on 19 November 1922 the first group of schoolchildren visited the Museum for educational tour.

The Belorussian State Museum: the central museum institution of Belarus (1923-1929)

In 1923, the Museum was named the Byelorussian State Museum and, according to its Regulations, became ‘the central institution for preservation of objects and collections of artistic, historical, archaeological and ethnographical nature which are of national and scientific importance’. During its first year, the Byelorussian State Museum was open Sundays from 12:00 till 15:00. Once a month, the Museum was open from 14:00 till 19:00, in order to let the working people visit it. Tours were made by appointment, and admission was charged.

In 1924, new branches were added to the structure of Byelorussian State Museum: the State Historical Museum of Proletarian Culture in Mahilioŭ and the Provincial Historical and Archaeological Museum in Viciebsk (as well as the Homieĺ State Historical and Cultural Museum since 1926).

The next years were a period of active museum items collecting. The collections of former Mscislaŭ seminary, former museum in Hory-Horki, and the most valuable items from the Sluck Museum of Local History were transferred to Minsk. Babrujsk association for regional studies donated 537 silver coins from 1612-1650. In 1926, some objects of Jewish heritage from the former Anton Bradouski’s private collection were transferred from the Viciebsk museum.

Furthermore, collection was enriched by donations of citizens and planned expeditions. For example, in Summer 1926, the Museum’s archaeological department excavated an ancient settlement of Bancaraŭščyna, mounds around Lahojsk, as well as Stone Age site at Kostryn near Puchavičy. Ethnographic department conducted two expeditions to the districts of Mazyr and Barysaŭ. The Museum’s Jewish Department organized expeditions to collect museum items in Kalinin district (administrative unit with centre in Klimavičy).

The museum management tried to return first-class monuments of Belarusian culture that were taken to Russia from late 18th till early 20th century back to Belarus. However, little was returned: fonts and equipment of antique Jewish printing house, the antique Torah, Lubavitcher Rebbe Schneersohn’s Hanukkah Lamp, silver ornaments of the Torah, 17th-century silver cross from the church in Zaslaŭje, and two Sluck sashes. Request for returning the remaining valuable monuments of Belarusian origin was rejected by the Council of People’s Commissars. Instead, in 1926-1927, about 70 paintings by Russian artists (Ivan Aivazovsky, Ilya Repin, Konstantin Makovsky, Henryk Siemiradzki, Valentin Serov et al.), about 600 ancient coins, more than 40 ancient objects made of porcelain and crystal, 40 engravings, sculptures by Mark Antokolsky, 5 icons and 40 books on Art History of were transferred to the museum holdings from Russia. At that, the process of museum objects restitution from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) stopped.

On 10 October 1926, the Byelorussian State Museum opened a new display based on systematic presentation of objects by collections. A considerable part of the Museum’s space was assigned to artworks exhibition: three rooms were given for displaying works of 19th – early 20th century Russian artists, one room was given for the exhibition called ‘Ancient Byelorussian portrait’. In the former Domestic Archbishop’s Church, an ethnographic display was launched. Additionally, the new display comprised archaeological and Jewish collections. Also, temporary exhibitions were organized among which the exhibition of Sluck sashes in 1927 should be noted.

In May 1927, the Belarusian social and political personality, historian, ethnographer, philologist and collector Vatslau Lastouski was appointed to the post of the Director (at the same time he headed the chair of ethnography at the Institute of Byelorussian Culture). First of all, the new director succeeded in acquisition of national shrine, the Cross of Saint Euphrosyne of Polack. Also, the Museum’s collection was enriched with objects from ethnographical expeditions to Sluck, Mazyr, Turaŭ, and Mscislaŭ districts. Private donations grew in number. For example, in January 1928, Yanka Kupala gave a silver cross, a Baccarat glass, and an iron antique lock. Ethnographer Aliaksandr Serzhputouski gave about 50 household articles he collected in Orša district in Summer 1924. As of 1928, the Museum holdings housed around 60 thousand depository items. The unique collection of Belarusian school of icon painting manner, the oldest Saint Elias icon being dated 1447, was of special respect, but due to the Atheist policy, it was impossible to exhibit it.

Between 1920s and 1930s, revolutionary changes took place in the organization of Museum Affairs in BSSR. In August 1928, regional branches of the Museum became independent economic entities and, in 1929, an inspection commission of the Narkompros criticized the administration of the Byelorussian State Museum sharply for exhibiting portraits of Minsk province governors, Jewish objects of worship, acquisition of objects related to church and the lack of communist propaganda. The former Museum head Vatslau Lastouski was arrested in 1930 and executed by shooting in 1937.

The Minsk Social and Historical Museum (1930-1941)

1930s were not the best times for the Byelorussian State Museum. First, it was renamed into the Minsk Social and Historical Museum; second, the Museum was moved from the building of Archbishop’s metochion to the four rooms of the Peasant House (present-day Belarusian Republican Union of Youth building housed the Museum until 1944).

In February 1931, even the appointment of Siamion Rak-Mikhaylouski, the outstanding personality of the Belarusian national movement, to the post of the Director had no influence on the future destiny of the Museum. Soon, under his guidance a new permanent exhibition based upon the Marxist pattern of socioeconomic formation changing was launched. All the materials were divided according to Marxist periodization: history of primitive society, feudalism, capitalism, proletarian dictatorship and socialist construction, the latter period being emphasised. At that time the Museum was practically deprived of status of research institution and started exercising cultural and educational functions.

Siamion Rak-Mikhaylouski’s and his successor Siamion Yakubchyk’s loyalty to the Bolshevik regime has not saved them from execution: the first was arrested in August 1933 and shot in 1937, and his successor was executed in 1938.

Historical Museum during the war years (1941-1944)

Before the German troops’ offensive, the Historical Museum had no time to be evacuated, and during the Great Patriotic War it shared the tragic fate of Belarusian nation. In spite of the fact that precious museum pieces were in a storage room (permanent exhibition of the Social and Historical Museum told about achievements of socialist construction in BSSR and consisted of replicas mainly), it was ransacked during first months of occupation already. Most employees were evacuated, and the Museum was unprotected against burglars. 19 antique cannons were removed to Germany, 16 of them coming from the Niasviž collection. Paintings, books, manuscripts, and objects of religious worship connected with Jewish culture of Belarus, including Watch maker by Yehuda Pen, portrait of Francis Skaryna by Yakov Kruger, and others, were transmitted to the Vienna Institute of Hebrew Studies.

At the end of August 1941, Anton Shukeloyts was appointed head of the museum, and Hauryla Vier was appointed fine art restorer.

During the war years, no permanent exhibition was created, but there were temporary exhibitions of Belarusian icon painting, folk art, and belles-lettres. The restoration work went right along: among others, Hauryla Vier restored Belarusian relic, the Minsk Icon of the Mother of God.

In June 1944, holdings of the Minsk Historical Museum were transported to Bavarian castle of Höchstadt where museum treasures stolen in Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, and Poland were collected. The right to observe the keeping of collection was denied to the Museum head Anton Shukeloyts.

In 1945 Höchstadt was occupied by the American Army, but Soviet delegation aiming to return museum collections to USSR of appeared there soon. In October 1947, Belarusian part of museum collection was delivered to East Berlin where it was accepted by an authorized representative of the Council of Ministers of BSSR. In total, about 15 thousand depository items were returned and parcelled out to the holdings of Byelorussian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War History, Hrodna State Museum of History and Archaeology and the BSSR Academy of Sciences. Among others, they managed to return Niasviž collection paintings, old printed books, icons, and many other things from Germany.

For the first time, after war years, it was decided to not restore the historical museum.

Museum as the centre of national historical and cultural heritage studies (1956-1992)

As early as from the mid-1940s, there has been accepted view that restoring the Byelorussian State Museum is necessary. However, the practical fulfilment of that wishes stalled for years to come. At the beginning, items for the new museum were collected by employees of the State Museum of the Great Patriotic War History. In 1950s, Items that remained from the pre-war Byelorussian State Museum (cards, musical instruments, banners), and Ivan Lutskevich Belarusian Museum in Vilnius provided the basis for starting future holdings of a museum. At the moment, holdings of the National Historical Museum keep more than 1,500 units of museum items from Vilnius museum. These are documents, cards, graphic works, paintings, sculptures, icons, as well as stamps and prints of Belarusian institutions and organizations of first quarter of 20th c.

The collecting became more active after the steering team for creation of the Byelorussian State Museum of History and Regional Studies was formed on 15 December 1956. Within the framework of the steering team, departments that focused on the acquisition of collections for the first five years of their activities were created. In the H2 1950s, employees of the primitive communal system department excavated a number of Palaeolithic sites in Belarus in conjunction with archaeology sector of the Institute of History of the BSSR Academy of Sciences. The feudalism department participated in excavations of ancient cities of Druck and Polack. Employees of the capitalism department visited the apartments of Minsk natives, and, as a result of such expeditions, among other things, the Museum has received a seal of Minsk City Council, early 20th-century railwayman’s overcoat, late 19th-century townswoman’s suit, gymnasium textbooks, and sets of pre-revolutionary periodicals.

Holy vessels from closed churches and treasures found around the country were transferred to the holdings of future Museum. For example, in 1957, the Museum got the treasure hoard from the village of Suchary (H2 17th century coins of Prussia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) and the Dziahciany treasure hoard of mid-11th-century Czech coins. As of today, the collection of the National Historical Museum is the biggest and most important in Belarus having 117 hoards of coins and both coins and objects.

Cultural institutions of the Soviet Union provided assistance in establishing the BSSR State Museum. The Central Naval Museum gave mid-19th-century cold steel arms and firearms. The Military-Historical Museum of Artillery, Engineer and Signal Corps gave Napoleonic Russian and French weapons, and lot of WWI and WWII popular prints and posters. The State Russian Museum in Leningrad gave mid-19th-century ethnographic materials gathered in Minsk province. Chernihiv State Historical Museum gave H2 18th century Sluck sash.

As the result of the first five years work of the Byelorussian State Museum of History and Regional Studies, the collection necessary for completing the permanent exhibition has been formed. As of January 1 1961, total number of items was 38 thousand depository units, half of them arriving in 1960.

Since 1962, the steering team focused mainly on display preparation: composition of show plans, creation of maps, layouts, tables, dioramas, and writing references. Finally, on November 7 1964, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Byelorussia adopted a regulation concerning opening of the BSSR State Museum in Minsk. By then, its holdings numbered 108 depository items.

On November 12 the same year, Stanislau Sapeshka, the head of steering team, was solemnly given the keys of a new building at 25A praspiekt Lienina, following which the exhibition installation began there. In a very short time, the 900th Minsk Anniversary exhibition has been launched, and installation works in the Nature Department were approaching completion, but in November 1965 these were stopped, because the CPB Central Committee decreed to swap museum places. All the exhibits were moved to the pre-revolutionary former bank building at 12 vulica Karla Marksa, previously housing the State Museum of the Great Patriotic War History, the latter occupying the BSSR State Museum new building. As a result, the new historical exhibition was to be installed at three times less space than before, and the Nature Department display appeared in the basement.

The official opening of the BSSR State Museum took place on November 2 1967. Its display was placed in 18 rooms and introduced visitors to nature of Belarus and the history of Belarusian nation from ancient times until the present. About 70% total area of the BSSR State Museum was dedicated to Belarus history events during Soviet time. Among other items, the display featured the prehistoric bone tools, sculptural images of animals, fibulas, Medieval craftworks, ornaments made of bone, glass, and amber, 16th-18th cc. wooden sculpture, Sluck sashes, polychromatic tiles, Urečča glassware, old printed books, manuscripts, rich 18th-20th cc. ethnographic material, and personal belongings of Belarusian public and political figures, the military, and authors. The Museum display changed partially three times since then: in 1977, 1982, and 1993, due to replenishment of collections and changes of socio-political system.

During 1970s, the Museum transformed into the Republic’s biggest methodological centre of museology, local history, and restoration work. In 1967, the Methodological Department responsible for regular lessons for the Republic’s museum employees, analysis of the district local history museums work, and composition of guidance manuals was created. The restoration workshop and the Restoration and Conservation Council acted at the Museum.

The Museum’s popularity was increasing among the visitors. For example, in 1978 the Museum was visited by more than 310 thousand people, 80% of them overlooking its exhibitions with the guides who offered the museum tour and 26 theme tours. In addition to the guided tours, lectures, lessons, theme parties, profession days, meetings with veterans of war and labour and cultural figures, Communist Youth meetings, and Young Pioneer line-ups were organized; Young Historian and Future Military clubs were working.

From 1978 until 1988, the BSSR State Museum had a branch in Zaslaŭje, the Museum of Byelorussian National Crafts and Workmanship. It was situated in the Church of the Transfiguration of the Saviour. It exhibited about 900 items including the 18th-century Royal Gates from St. George’s Church in Davyd-Haradok, 10th-13th cc. jewellery, Belarusian goldware (16th-century chalice and an altar cross dated 1625), 16th-16th cc. tiles from Zaslaŭje, sculptural images of saints from Viciebsk and Hrodna regions, Sluck sashes dated H2 18th – early 20th cc., as well as Motaĺ and Niehliub towels.

The National Historical Museum of the Republic of Belarus at the present stage (1992-2014)

After the independence declaration of the Republic of Belarus, the Museum changed its name twice: from 1992 it was called the National Museum of History and Culture of Belarus; since 2009 it is named the National Historical Museum of the Republic of Belarus.

In 1992, the Museum planned to implement a full-scale exhibition replacement. For the first time, the display had to be depoliticized and organized according to Belarusian national accents. However, lack of funding made it impossible.

In 2008, the Culture Ministry of the Republic of Belarus approved the new permanent exhibition conception of the National Historical Museum organized by museum employees and researchers from the Institute of History at the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus. In 2012, the work on show plan was finished.

Every year, the museum collection grows by 2 or 3 thousand depository items. In recent years, the museum collection augmented considerably: as of today, it achieved the number of 400 thousand depository items. The museum items are distributed among 49 collections including archaeology, ethnography, numismatics, arms, porcelain and glass, old printed books and manuscripts, posters, precious metals and gems, treasures, documents, fine Arts, national clothes, and others.

A number of museum items are inscribed in the State Register of Historical and Cultural Values of the Republic of Belarus, some of the values classed as category 1 or 2: 1st-2nd century CE hoard of Roman coins, ‘Vytautas’ belt’ (an unique monument of 15th-century toreutics), 17th-century Royal gates from St. George’s church iconostasis at Davyd-Haradok, and the portrait of Joseph Prozor by unknown artist dated H2 18th century.

Moreover, the museum holdings house a unique collection of treasure hoards from all the corners of Belarus, valuable porcelain from Italy, Germany, and Russia, Sluck sashes, valuable documents, old printed books, timepieces, arms, national costume, furniture, paintings, and icons.

Since 1992, the House Museum of the First Congress of RSDLP became the branch of the museum, with its exhibition covering both history of the congress of social-democrats, and history of Minsk at the turn of 20th century. In 2012, the Museum of Contemporary Belarusian Statehood – one of the country’s informational, presentational and communicative centres, a place of collecting, researching, keeping, and presenting materials concerning the history of the Republic of Belarus – became the branch of the National Historical Museum.

Since 2014, the Museum of Belarusian Cinema History, the Museum of Theatre and Musical Culture History of the Republic of Belarus, and the Museum of Nature and Environment of the Republic of Belarus became branches of the National Historical Museum.