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Museum Musings

Treasures of the Orient
Interview with Tatyana Metaxa, of the State Museum of Oriental Art.

The collections of the State Museum of Oriental Art are filled with items that reflect cultures of all parts of the vast region that used to be called the ”Orient.” The arts of China, Korea, India, Indochina, Burma, and Indonesia are represented along with those of Japan, Iran, Egypt, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Amazingly, all this is on exhibit at the relatively small museum located on Nikitsky Bulvar. Tatyana Metaxa (pictured above), the museum’s first deputy director, discusses the East, the West, and everything in between with Passport’s Olga Mironenko.
Text Olga Mironenko
Photos courtesy of the State Museum of Oriental Art

Would you talk a bit about the museum’s history?

The museum was started in 1918 on the basis of several large private collections that were nationalized, and it has had a tumultuous history ever since. Until 1925, it was called Ars Asiatica, then it was the Oriental Cultures Museum until 1962. It was also called the Museum of Art of Oriental Peoples at one point. In addition to names, it also changed locations several times. Now, we are located in one of the most beautiful and typical of the old Moscow mansions. The building itself is called Lunin House, after the uncle of one of the Decembrists. General Lunin acquired this plot of land and later had the Italian architect Domenico Giliardi build the house, which is a perfect example of 19th-century Russian classicism.

I understand that the museum’s collections include more than 60,000 items. Where do you store them all?

Yes, storage of items not on display is always an important issue for a museum. We have another location, at Vorontsovo Polye, which we use mainly as our vault. The museum nowadays is very much focused on preserving and amplifying its collection.

It seems that Russia has become more Westernized in recent years, especially in terms of culture and lifestyle. In light of that, what goals do you have for the museum?

The East has attracted a great deal of attention throughout our history. Moreover, this interest has increased lately, which I would personally link to the expanded opportunities we have today to go places and see things for ourselves. For example, large numbers of Russians travel to India, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, and so on. Not to mention Egypt and Tunisia. In addition, the flow of information has exploded, whether we are talking about literature or the press or the Internet. You can now find anything, and if we consider that Eastern cultures have been fashionable for a long time, it’s not surprising that interest in the East is on the rise. What our museum aims to do is help people who are interested make contact with authentic Eastern cultures.

In my opinion, Eastern and Western cultures have, in fact, drifted closer together than we tend to think. Western as we might see ourselves, look around Moscow with its countless tea-houses and restaurants serving various kinds of Asian cuisine, and clearly the East is in vogue!

How is an exhibition organized? How does the concept develop, and how does the museum determine what to show?

It’s a very long and painstaking process. Exhibitions are years in the preparing. You have to select the items to be exhibited and how they will be organized, the order in which they are best presented to our visitors. This is the part where it’s crucial to have a talented designer. Luckily, we have a great one, Anna Kamensky, who, like many others of our distinguished staff, has a doctorate. But many people have input into our exhibits — research associates or individual artists and galleries, including foreign ones. For example, we sometimes collaborate with the Triumph Gallery and hold joint exhibitions. At times we take our exhibitions abroad. We’ve received warm welcomes in the United States, Europe, and, of course, in many Asian countries.

Once a proposal for an exhibition is written, it is reviewed by the exhibition council, which is headed by the director of the museum, Alexander Sedov. Right now we’re having a very interesting exhibition, “Fans in the artistic cultures of the West and the East.” It took us two to three years to organize it in cooperation with three other museums and the fashion historian Alexander Vassiliev. This autumn we are planning to have an exhibition on African culture. Another very time-consuming part of the preparation is the compilation of catalogues. These provide essential information about the culture the items in the exhibition belong to and are generally compiled by our research associates.

The area the museum’s holdings represent is vast and the cultures many and diverse. Do you personally have a favorite region or country?

I definitely find North Korea fascinating; it really stands out. But my favorite is probably Japan. I’m in love with the art and the culture’s fantastically delicate attitude toward nature. The Japanese have this innate estheticism that I so enjoy.

By the entrance I noticed a list of lectures given at the museum. Can you say a bit about the activities you have here?

In addition to our lyceum, which we have had for a very long time, we have an Arab and Indian dance studio, where we teach both children and adults who wish to add some color and diversity to their lives. We also have an archaeological school for children, which organizes lectures and summer field trips. The museum also conducts archeological excavations in Chukotka, the North Caucasus,. and several other regions of Russia.

State Museum of Oriental Art
12A Nikitsky Bulvar
Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11:00 – 20:00
Closed Monday
291-8219, 291-4966
M. Arbatskaya

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