Murder, revolution and science.
Written by: Iona Jenkins
The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution portrays a fascinating story that interweaves murder, revolution, and science within a deep yet disturbed family history. Marking 100 years since the gruesome end of the Romanov dynasty (the ruling family of Russia between 1613-1917), this exhibition features an unusual range of artefacts that allow us to delve into some intimate and hidden aspects of the Imperial story. From the mental health struggles of Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna that highlight a wife’s role and expectations to the sheltering of the frail Tsarevich Alexei, medical history is brought to life in a tangible and absorbing way.
Displayed are artefacts that have long resided out of the public’s beady eye.
22 photograph albums depict a close and healthy family, with boating, hunting, and walking as prime activities. The children often wore matching outfits that resemble sailor uniforms, yet remaining regal under their parent’s careful guidance. The Tsar prided his family under the extraordinary pressure of ruling a sixth of the world’s landmass, even as his country descended into chaos.
The exhibition successfully highlights the effect of ill health even within the most rich and powerful. We are taken through the heartbreaking effects of political pressure and tradition on Tsarina Alexandra. Her desperation to produce a male heir after four female children reduced her to a nervous and physically weak mother, to the extent of suffering from phantom pregnancies.
Her relief and happiness at birthing Tsarevich Alexei was cruelly cut short when he started bleeding uncontrollably from his navel, showing clear signs of haemophilia (known as the “royal disease”), which the Tsarina wrongly blamed herself for. The family’s determination to keep him alive resulted in withdrawal from public life as they enclosed their son in a protective bubble.
The stare of Grigori Rasputin, the “mad monk” and mystic who befriended the family in 1905, follows you intently as you shiver past his portraits. Contemporary cartoons depict the wary public’s uncertainty about this strange man: just how strong was his influence over the royals?.
A notable shortcoming is that little was produced in the exhibition to frame the assassinations against the uneasy social backdrop of impending revolution. Whilst there was an air of mystery conjured when exploring the crime scenes, its context seemed unclear. A rather brief mention of the Bolshevik revolution could leave some visitors without an understanding of the reasons behind the royal murders.
From a Faberge steel Easter egg resembling a gilded hand grenade to a lonely pearl earring, the family treasures glittered in the darkened exhibition hall, creating an atmosphere of dusty nostalgia and foreboding.
The bewilderment of the royal physicians at Alexei’s condition gives insight into contemporary medical knowledge, alongside the enormous medicine suitcase brimming with familiar substances such as Belladonna and vanilla, with more startling remedies like Absinthe in crystal vials. If that didn’t work as a painkiller, I’m not sure what else would have.
Bringing the story into the 21st century emphasised the knowledge and opportunities produced by the development of DNA sequencing and DNA therapy, with focus on haemophilia. The link to the British monarchy is sure to captivate royalists, whilst science-lovers can study the unusual technology on show.
The exhibition certainly brings a mysterious story to life, providing a wide scope of material to captivate the visitor. However, only basic introduction is offered on some themes, such as the revolution and analysis of imperial home life. More annotations on the genetics and modes of inheritance behind the family tree showing carriers and sufferers of haemophilia would have given a more thorough insight into this intriguing story. Whilst the exhibition is titled “Revolution”, this context was glazed over rather hurriedly, leaving the viewer suddenly reading about DNA analysis in slight bewilderment.
Nevertheless, the exhibition succeeded in bringing important themes to our attention – the age-old pressure on women to provide male heirs, misunderstood mental health issues, modern genetic analysis, and the implications on modern society.
The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution is a free special exhibition at the Science Museum on show from 21st September 2018 to 24th March 2019.D