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The princely natural history cabinet

Thanks to the insatiable interest nature of the prince and later count Friedrich Karl von Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt (*1737 – ruled from 1790 – died 1793), there is a remarkable natural history collection in Rudolstadt's Heidecksburg Palace today. At a time when the thrust for research and discovery of the flourishing sciences was reflected in the numerous chambers of art and curiosities, he was able to build up a considerable cabinet of natural history himself, of which he later, in 1790, in the writing of his memoirs, dated the year of foundation to 1757 – a time when he was hardly able to leave his bed due to a riding accident and the subsequent convalescence phase. To get through these long weeks, he relied on his personal physician and geologist Georg Christian Füchsel, who enriched him with his knowledge and is today regarded as one of the founders of the cabinet of natural history.

As early as 1729, a cabinet of rarities existed in Heidecksburg Palace, which contained many naturalia among the 341 items listed. However, a large part of it was lost in a fire in 1735. Therefore, prince Friedrich Karl's founding of his cabinet of naturalia in the Rudolstadt city palace Ludwigsburg marked an important new beginning for princely collecting. By the end of the 18th century, it had become one of the most famous collections of naturalia in Germany.

Support was also provided by external naturalists such as Friedrich Heinrich Wilhelm Martini in Berlin, Johann Ernst Immanuel Walch in Jena and Friedrich Christian Günther in Kahla. The first curator of the Princely Natural History Cabinet was Christoph Ludwig Kämmerer, who was trained for this purpose at the University of Jena. He was followed by his brother J. E. L. Kämmerer and August Karl Friedrich Werlich. Outstanding for the development of the Natural History Cabinet were its curators Carl August Ferdinand Otto, Julius Speerschneider and Otto Schmiedeknecht. The preservation of the Natural History Museum is primarily due to the work of Siegfried Kuss at the end of the 1940s.

The cabinet's collection grew from the institute's own collecting activities, from purchases and from donations. The most diverse objects from the stone, animal and plant kingdoms entered the collection through natural history dealers. It was only after the abdication of the last prince, Günther Viktor of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt, that the inventory of the Natural History Cabinet became the property of the Günther Foundation and was moved to Heidecksburg Palace in 1919.

Today, more than 260 years have passed since the cabinet was founded. In contrast to the chambers of art and curiosities of the 18th century, it represented a pure collection of naturalia, so that today's Natural History Museum can be regarded as the oldest natural history museum in Thuringia, whose research potential is far from exhausted. In 1994, the Natural History Cabinet was opened in a reconstructed form in today's Natural History Museum in Heidecksburg Palace. The Natural History Museum exists as a regional reference centre, an archive for research on biodiversity and for the transfer of expertise based on this research. Its collections include fungi, plants, animals, fossils, minerals and rocks. An extensive specialist library, which is particularly distinguished by its historical holdings, is also part of the collection.

At the age of five, Friedrich Karl moved to Ludwigsburg Palace with his parents, where he lived until 1767. In the seclusion he found there, and where he also devoted himself to painting, music and poetry, he created his natural history cabinet. Two key experiences stimulated his passion for natural history at an early age: his first visit to a natural history cabinet in Greiz in 1743 and the view of minerals and petrified wood in Coburg. On his educational trip to France in 1755, he studied languages as well as art, science and economics before returning home in 1756 with a diversion via Holland. 

On 26 March 1757, the young prince was thrown off his horse and dragged along, causing him serious injuries and confining him to his bedside for a long convalescence. During this time, his personal physician Georg Christian Füchsel took care of him and also taught him scientific knowledge and arranged his collections. For this reason, Friedrich Karl later dated the beginning of his natural history cabinet to this year.

When Friedrich Karl of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt took over as ruler on 29 August 1790, his behaviour and his body were already marked by a severe nervous illness that overshadowed his regency, which lasted barely two and a half years. He succumbed to his illness at the age of 57. However, he already exerted a fruitful influence on the fate of his country as hereditary prince at the side of his aged father, Ludwig Günther II of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt.