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  • Writer's pictureFrancisco Teles da Gama, MA

A Brief History of the Museum of the Orient in Lisbon

What is the Museum of the Orient?

The Museum of the Orient, or Museu do Oriente in Portuguese, is a museum in Lisbon that celebrates the centuries-old relationship between Asia and Portugal.

Museu do Oriente figures

The Museum of the Orient History

The Museum of the Orient was inaugurated in 2008 in an unusual building here on Lisbon’s waterfront. It’s an important cultural centre, divided into two core collections, that explores the heritage and traditions of several Asian countries, and their relationships with Portugal.

The first collection, entitled The Portuguese Presence in Asia, is formed of 2,000 artefacts from nations as diverse as India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan and East Timor, and explores the cultural, scientific, technical and religious exchanges between East and West. Exhibits include hand-carved furniture, rare ivories, precious textiles, sacred art and sculpture. Of particular note are the 17th- and 18th-century folding screens from China and Japan, a fantastic collection of porcelain gathered by the Portuguese East India Company, and examples of precious Nanban art – a Japanese tradition influenced by contact with the nanban (or ‘southern barbarians’) from the Iberian Peninsula.

From as early as the 16th century, certain members of the European aristocracy and merchant class began to form collections known as cabinets of curiosities (‘cabinet’ here referring to a room rather than a piece of furniture). The popularity of these rooms, precursors to public museums, fostered widespread interest in items from ‘exotic’ lands, such as porcelain, ivory, mother-of-pearl, tortoise shells and rhino horns.

Museu do Oriente frontage

João Carvalho, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The second part of the museum is dedicated to the Kwok On Collection. This was created by French sinologist Jacques Pimpaneau from the initial 600 objects donated in 1971 by Kwok On, a Chinese banker whom the Frenchman met in Hong Kong while teaching at the Chinese University. Kwok On was a true lover of the art of Chinese theatre, which he devoted himself to recording. He built traditional musical instruments and puppets, organised gatherings of friends to stage Cantonese opera librettos, and staged puppet shows in the tradition of China, India and Indonesia. Donated to the Orient Foundation in 1999, the collection now comprises more than 15,000 objects from a geographical area that extends from Turkey to Japan.

Unlike many of the city’s other important artistic collections, you’ll notice that the Museum of the Orient is housed in a functional looking 1940s port building, designed by architect João Simões Antunes. The structure takes its name from Pedro Álvares Cabral, the Portuguese explorer who was appointed in 1500 to lead an expedition to India following the route recently discovered by Vasco da Gama. Cabral was meant to circumvent the African continent and establish important trade relations in India, but on his way disembarked in South America, becoming one of the first Europeans to reach Brazil.

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