Text by Tamar Esakia, photos by National Museum
In 1865, the Museum of the Caucasus opened on the initiative of ethnic German ethnographer and naturalist Gustav Radde. The museum was stocked with vast materials obtained by Radde during his expeditions throughout the Caucasus. In 1852-1864, the museum also inherited the equipment and natural science, ethnographic, and historical collections of the Museum of the Caucasian Department of the Russian Imperial Geographic Society in Tbilisi. Later, the museum benefited from the geological, botanical, and zoological materials collected throughout the Caucasus and preserved in the so-called Naturalist Bayern’s Office, and previously exhibited in Bayern’s cabinet arranged in the house of a widowed Mrs. Mayer, in the German colony.
The Museum of the Caucasus held its first exhibition on January 2, 1867. Later, it merged with the Public Library. In 1880-81, the museum’s collections in their entirety relocated to a two-story building with 8 exhibition halls designed by famous Tbilisi-based architect Albert Salzman on modern-day Rustaveli Avenue. Some of the then exposition items have survived only in the form of photographs.
In line with the policy of Tsarist Russia, the Museum of the Caucasus preached the might and power of the Russian Empire and symbolized the triumph of Russia’s military force. That is why the Georgian intelligentsia: scientists, writers, public figures, and others seeking to collect and preserve Georgian national treasures established several smaller museums to counterbalance the Museum of the Caucasus. These smaller facilities brought together historical artifacts from all of Georgia, such as rich archeological and ethnographic materials, unique manuscripts, and the like. In 1919, on the decrее of the government of independent Georgia, the Museum of the Caucasus was abolished and replaced with the State Museum. After Sovietization, the government was evacuated to France along with Georgia’s national treasures, including a part of the collection of the Museum of Georgia, all of which was kept in France until 1945. Despite the dire political situation, the museum never ceased operating by developing a clear organizational structure, holding expeditions, and expanding scientific research.
For some time, the museum employed historian Ivane Javakhishvili after his expulsion from the State University which he had founded earlier and served as a professor. In 1929, after almost 15 years of construction, the new, far larger building of the Museum of Georgia was finalized. The sweeping Bolshevik terror in the 1930s claimed the lives of many employees of the museum. In 1945, the unique national treasures of Georgia, recently transported back to the country, were divided among the Museum of Georgia, the Art Museum, and the Institute of Manuscripts.
In 2011, after a series of fundamental renovations, the Museum of Georgia reopened as a scientific institution meeting all modern standards and boasting a rich, unique collection, including more than one million exhibits: animal fossils from 40 million years ago, and rich Paleolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, and medieval archeological and ethnographic materials. Simon Janashia museum’s permanent exhibition reflects a period in history from the Early Stone Age to the 1920s.
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