The Ethnographic Department of the Emperor Alexander III Russian Museum was to be housed next to the Mikhailovsky Palace, with the latter devoted to the museum's Department of Art. Architect V. Svin'in, who had given a good account of himself during the reconstruction of the Mikhailovsky Palace, was entrusted with designing a new building for the Ethnographic Department.
The design work started in 1897 after the financing by governmental treasury had begun, it went at a more rapid tempo. Headed by Grand Duke Georguy Mikhailovich and Count D. Tolstoy, a state commission was formed under the name of "Construction Commission Approved by the Emperor" to control the financing, period and quality of construction, select the companies and distribute contracts. At the same time the Imperial Academy of Arts commission which was headed by Professor R. Haedike and included such renowned architects as L. Benois, G. Kotov and V. Suslov, was developed to discuss and finish the designs submitted by V. Svin'in. In 1904 the architect offered two alternative designs of the building. The first one was a closed square with two parallel blocks: the front one facing Mikhailovskaya Square (now Arts Square) and Inzhenernaya Street, and the garden one, with a staircase leading to the Mikhailovsky Gardens. The second one included the front block only. The commissions made their choice in favour of the second design as a less expensive one. Started in 1905 the building construction was not completed before 1910 and its interior finishing continued until 1915.
The neo-classic style of the Ethnographic Department building was an architectural vogue in the early 20th century. Designed as a Temple of Arts and at the same time as majestic monument to Emperor Alexander III, it was "to serve, by means of both its architectural forms and all details of its decorations, a permanent reminder of the purpose of this building" (Archives of the State Russian Museum, op. 1, doc. 138, sheet 1). Moreover, the building was to become an integral part of the Mikhailovskaya Square ensemble created by Carlo Rossi in the first half of the 19th century, and meet its purpose as a museum. The design by the architect V. Svin'in proved to meet successfully all above requirements. The museum building is a solemn-looking piece of architecture, its cornice featuring the sculptural group of Athene as Patroness of Arts and Trades created by M. Kharlamov in 1910 upon request by Grand Duke Georgy Mikhailovich. Two multifigured compositions from ancient history by the same sculptor decorate both sides of the portal. The exterior and interior walls of the building are covered by relief ornaments made after drawings by V. Svin'in. Featuring the ideals of hailing the state, Imperial power, science, arts and ardent creative spirit the relief ornaments include emblems of the Russian Empire, St Petersburg and Moscow, sceptres, crowns, coat of arms, torches, scrolls, books, globes, drawing instruments which are symbols of state, science, arts and trades. Every detail of the simply and rationaly designed Museum's inner layout is dictated by convenience of displays and traffic of visitors.