The Department of Ethnography of the Russian Museum was founded on April 13th, 1895, by a supreme decree of His Majesty, Nikolas II, in memory of his father, Emperor Alexander III.
In the late 19th c., both the purpose and the perspective plan for the formation of the Russian Museum was defined. The museum was to be comprised of three departments: the Department of Fine Arts (the Mikhailovsky Palace), the Department of Ethnography, and a department dedicated specifically to the memory of Emperor Alexander III.
A young and talented architect, Vasiliy Svinin, whose plan for the reconstruction of the Mikhailovsky Palace was chosen by the Empress Maria Feodorovna herself, was commissioned to develop the plans for the Ethnographic and the Memorial Departments, and he managed to oversee all aspects of the complex’s completion.
According to the architect’s plan, the building of the Department of Ethnography was to be constructed exclusively through the use of state funding and domestically produced materials; it called for the implementation of the most advanced methods, requiring the latest in equipment technology. This being the case, Svinin chose Olonets marble to decorate the halls, which was quarried not far from St. Petersburg.
At the request of the first Manager of the Russian Museum, the Grand Prince George Mikhailovich, in 1910 the cornice of the museum was adorned with the sculpture of “Athena - the Patroness of Arts and Trades”, by the sculptor, Matvey Kharlamov.
The crystal ceiling slabs of the Memorial Department with their images of two-headed eagles were produced by goldsmiths of the Moscow based trading house, I. P. Khlebnikov, Sons & Co.
The building was intended to become an integral part of the Mikhailovskaya Square ensemble that was created by Carlo Rossi in the first half of the 19th c., and the design by the architect, Svinin, successfully met all of the set requirements.