Museo Nazionale d’ Arte Orientale “G. Tucci”
The museum is located in the Palazzo Brancaccio and is an institute of the Italian Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali (Direzione generale per le antichità).
The institute exhibits artifacts produced by various Asian populations within a timeframe ranging from the Neolithic (~6000 BCE) to the last century. The sources of these items are findings from archeological excavation and donations from private collections. Many of the artifacts exhibited are of relevant historical value; many others are of exquisite artistic value as well.
The museum displays these items, identified as “Oriental” artifacts (perhaps to distinguish them from those of “Western” origins), by grouping them according to some historical and/or cultural criteria and linking those groups through a geographic mapping. The result is an exhibition floor map composed of fifteen rooms where the objects presented satisfy seven thematic approaches. The list of rooms is: Ist, IInd and IIId: Ancient Near and Middle East; IVth: Art and Archeology from Islam; Vth and VIIIth: Gandhara; VIth: Tibet and Nepal; VIIth, XIth to XVth: China and Japan; IXth: India; Xth: Korea. Three additional rooms are available for special exhibitions.
The works from this broad geographic area and very long historical period belong to some of the populations whose civilizations formed, evolved and in most cases disappeared in Asia during eight millennia. The display of these artifacts in an effective and understandable manner constitutes a challenge; failure to meet this challenge would let visitors down. This is a synoptic view of the exhibits.
Rooms I, II, III. Pottery, bronzes, precious metals and semiprecious stones (6000 BCE to 600 AD) from ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean area, the Iranian Plateau and Central Asia are presented in overcrowded, poorly lit display cases where items are also badly referenced. Since very few visitors could muster the knowledge of history and culture that would allow the unmediated appreciation of the items exposed, the price for the poor educational support material is their very rapid exit from these rooms. Unfortunately, some of the artifacts exposed are of remarkable interest.
Room IV. Important ceramics, mainly from Iran, ranging from the Protoislamic to the Qajar period (VIIIth to XIXth cent.), various metal and glass artifacts as well as architectural findings from Mas’ud III palace at Ghazni (Afghanistan, XIIth cent.) are shown in this room. It is a display of pieces whose aesthetic value becomes the main level of appreciation. Without a proper historical or cultural reference their enjoyment and not their understanding is all the visitor will take home.
Room V and VIII. An important Italian archaeological mission in the Swat Valley (Northwestern Pakistan, Butkara and Saidu Sharif area), initially led by G. Tucci, studied several Gandhara sites and some of those findings were accessioned under agreement with the Government of Pakistan. The two rooms have in display exceptionally important and beautiful findings; unfortunately, only scholars and specialized students can likely appreciate their historical, religious and cultural value. Here, in semi-obscurity, we can barely ‘see’ the items placed on display and there is little sensibility or contextualization.
Room VI. Religious artifacts ranging from handscroll paintings on cloth, metal and wooden statues and cretulae (seal impressions) are displayed in small and large cabinets. These items belong to the museum’s large and very important collection of Tibetan art, mostly acquired by G Tucci. If the display of historical findings may be challenging, the exhibition of esoteric material is even more difficult. But it should be at least attempted… not ignored. Here the assumption seems to be that only scholars could approach an understanding of these artifacts.
Room VII and X to XV. The museum has a world class collection of artifacts from the Far East (China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam) and the items exhibited provide the viewer with a
sweeping panorama of the far east cultures from 4000 BCE to the last century.
The Japanese culture is represented with Jomon, Yayoi and Kofun period artifacts (2500 BCE to 500 AD) and calligraphy scrolls and ukiyo-e from the XVIIth to XIXth century.
Koryo and Choson dynasties kiln production (XIIth and XVIth cent.) and some other earlier artifacts make up the Korean exhibit.
The exhibition of remarkable Chinese bronzes (ritual vases, arms and harness, XIIIth to VIIIth cent. BCE) is supplemented by important old statues, glazed stoneware (IInd cent. BCE – VIth cent AD) Tang, Ming and Qing porcelains and ancient jades.
A group of very rare glazed ceramics from Northern Vietnam (XIth to XVIth cent. AD) are also exhibited in these rooms.
Even taking into consideration the difficulties presented by exhibiting inside an old, ornate, palace, the clumsy display of the Far East artifacts is hardly justifiable, and further compounded by the peculiar lack of contextualization.
Room IX. The Indian artworks exhibited are bronzes and stone statuary from the Ist to the XIXth century with many works from the VIIth to XIIIth cent. AD. All the works are important cultural artifacts from a civilization whose history and religion are not quite common knowledge in the West. It is a pity that the museum was unable to step up to the task of displaying then with proper means of information and education. Most western viewers back off from these treasures because they cannot understand the meaning, or value, of these artifacts.
The previous notes addressed the exhibition content and some of its methods. It can be concluded that while the displayed artifacts are of high cultural value (certainly of international relevance), several of the display conditions do not meet an equivalent standard.
A few observations: (i) the “parabolic” display cases, in particular, perform extremely poorly in terms of lighting and reflection, of item enhancement and of level display; (ii) the item supporting documentation, when included, has the value of an archival catalogue note; (iii) the contextualization of display case(s) is dismally lacking. Even though a couple of pages of general notes are available for each thematic approach, a far more extensive (and friendly) level of documentation should have been provided to assist the visitor interested in understanding what s/he’s marvelling at and why.
In conclusion, even though technical improvements would be desirable, the educational and presentation elements of the display would benefit from a systematic improvement.
A museum with such a broad investigative scope must of necessity be set up to handle donated collections, operational acquisitions, and accessions from archeological missions, thus facing difficulties in complying with practices of historical and/or cultural completeness. However, the curatorial efforts in delivering a good exhibition of artifacts should be, at least, commensurate with the relevance of the item involved, regardless of the extent of the exhibition.