The origins of the Museum go back to 1872, when the Polytechnic Exhibition—a major presentation of the latest achievements in industrial and agricultural technology, science and culture, along with the artefacts from Russian history—was held on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Peter the Great, the Russian emperor who led the cultural revolution and pushed modernization. The Exhibition, supported by the number of Russian scientific organizations and intended primarily for science communication, had a raving success, and its objects served as a founding collections of the three museums in Moscow and Saint Petersburg established following the Exhibition—the Polytechnic Museum, the State Historical Museum and Popov Central Museum of Communication.
From the very beginning, the Museum of Applied Science, as it was called that time, engaged not only in object collection, but most of all—in public explanations, courses and other educational activity. Its contribution to public enlightenment and technical literacy made the Museum extremely popular among the broadest audience and gained massive support from government, manufacturers and entrepreneurs.
In 1877, the Museum acquired its own newly-constructed building at Novaya square, which was completed only 30 years later, when the Museum already became the all-Russia's science communication center and a cultural center of Moscow. The construction was finished in 1907, introducing the Museum’s Big Lecture Hall, which would house the public science demonstrations, lectures, debates, conferences, as well as poetry readings and musical concerts.
The very first lectures brought up visionary insights into the future technology—from now on the Museum is widely associated with the Big Lecture Hall, the Moscow’s main rostrum to introduce the most advanced science to the most responsive audience. But it soon appeared to be a point of strong attraction not only for scientists and engineers, but also for the artistic avant-garde. The Jack of Diamonds artistic group holds here their public disputes about the new forms of art, where young Vladimir Mayakovsky takes his first-ever performance in Moscow.
Scientific discoveries attract the artists as much as new art attracts the scientists, which induces throughout social and professional mixing involving thousands of fascinated spectators. The boundary between techies and poets does not exist here—feature of novelty is all that matters. The Polytechnic Museum’s Big Lecture Hall enshrines the memories of Mechnikov and Bohr, Timiryazev and Zhukovsky, Rachmaninov and Mayakovsky, Pasternak and Bulgakov, Nemirovich-Danchenko and Meyerhold.
The great social disruptions brought by the first decades of the 20th century made hard times for the whole nation, and the Museum shared that lot. Since the beginning of the WWI, the Museum organized the inhouse hospital for wounded, hosting the ongoing lectures and poetry readings for the benefit of soldiers and their families. After the Revolution of 1917, the Museum lost the government funding and was to lease some of its premises to stay afloat. But even unheated halls and leaking roof did not drive off the Museum’s audience—hungry and cold, they were still eager to learn and discuss. Only clampdown of the Stalin era made the persistent activity of the Big Lecture Hall ratchet down—to revive in full only during the Khrushchev Thaw.
Since the beginning of 1930s the Museum gets reformed to prioritize the display of the advancement of Soviet industry and agriculture, to promote technical education and become a training center for workers. The practical courses become to be of key importance during the WWII, when the exhibition work was almost shut down for a while due to the harsh conditions and most of the staff to be off at the front. But despite the wartime shortages, the remaining Museum staff use the best endeavors to resume normal operation of the Museum. After the war ends, the Museum faces another reorganization aimed at becoming the central institution for communication of scientific knowledge and technology involving the top Soviet researchers and academicians. The exhibition now emphasizes reviewing the history and achievements of the Soviet industry, displaying the most typical items as the milestones of the progress.
The ‘60s introduced space hopes and nuclear fears, questioning the legacy of the past and trying to dip into future. Norbert Wiener, the originator of cybernetics, gave a lecture at the full house audience. For the short period, poetry readings and discussions were back at the Big Lecture Hall, making it the Moscow’s top cultural and intellectual hub again. The tension and enthusiasm of those meetings can be seen at the Marlen Khutsiev’s footage for his landmark picture I Am Twenty, where he filmed some poetry performances.
Since the Museum’s centenary, the keeper’s work emphasis has shifted to the heritage review and study. In 1988, the Polytechnic Museum obtained the status of the Main Museum of History of Science and Technology in USSR, which set a task for building and supporting the professional museum community—the task that was to be implemented within all the challenges of the Post-Soviet period.
In April 2010 President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the Russian Government to develop a Concept of the Science Museum on the basis of the Polytechnic Museum. That move gave a start to the Museum’s massive makeover, that is about to give a rebirth to the iconic institution, placing it among the best science museums in the world.