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Orient Museum (Lisbon, Portugal)

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Contact: Museu do Oriente, Avenida Brasilia, Doca de Alcantara Norte, 1350-362 Lisboa / Tel: 21 3585 200

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      08.02.2011 13:44
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      a museum on Portugal's former Asian possessions

      Lisbon has a lot of shabby grandeur. This is not the place to tell you why the grandeur has became shabby but where it came from, at least in parts. A visit to the Museo do Oriente (Orient Museum or Museum of the Far East) provides some answers.

      It's located in the port area, next to a yacht marina, between the main road and the railway line and the river Tejo. The address is Av. Brasília, Doca de Alcántara, it can be reached by public transport, the buses 12, 28, 714, 73, 738, the trams 15E, 18 E and the trains to Cascais stop there (station Alcántara). Open 10am-6pm (closed Tuesdays), 10am-10pm on Fridays. The admission is reduced for tourists holding a LisboaCard. The museum is wheelchair friendly.

      The museum opened only in 2008, the six-storey concrete structure was used to store bacalhau (dried cod) before it was turned into a museum with show rooms, an auditorium, a restaurant on the top floor, a cafeteria and a shop on the lower level. An educational centre offers courses in Asian cooking and culture. Temporary exhibitions on different topics are shown on the ground floor, the Museo do Oriente proper occupies the first and the second floor.

      I knew already that Portugal had been a maritime power in the 16th century with overseas possessions in Asia (and in South America, but logically, this part of Portuguese history is not dealt with in the Museum *do Oriente*). What I did not know, however, was that the Portuguese didn't sail to far away places, conquer them and carry home whatever precious goods they could lay their hands on to enrich Crown and Fatherland. No, the Portuguese arrived in Japan in 1543 and then established trade routes in the far East. The Japanese coined the phrase 'Nauban trade', Nauban meaning 'Southern barbarians'. The Portuguese shipped goods from one far away country to another without touching base in Portugal. Of course, they got rich this way; what did they do with their wealth? The Asians, wisely, never allowed them to really get into the country and settle there, the Japanese even excluded them from further trading in 1641. In China they were restricted to Macau, in India to Goa. They could only take their wealth back to Portugal and show it off there - if they hadn't died on the seven seas before.

      A gilded screen depicts a ship, Portuguese traders and Japanese dignitaries, which is like an illustration of a history lesson. Wherever Portuguese sailors and tradesmen were allowed to settle, for example in Macau, Jesuit missionaries could be found as well. This review is not the place to discuss what good they did there to the indigenous population - if any at all. Another screen with biblical scenes shows that the Asians interpreted Christian stories their way, I hadn't seen the Holy Family with Asian features and clothes set in an Asian landscape before. But then the Holy Family is black in Africa.

      From the net, "Visitors with poor night vision might want to watch their steps in the galleries which are kept dark to show off objects in the illuminated display cases." The positive effect of this arrangement is that the exhibits really look wonderful. Chinese folding screens, costumes, jewellery, snuff boxes, religious statues, vases, paintings - you name it - from Goa, China, Japan, East Timor and other Portuguese outposts or trading areas from the 1500-1900s are clearly laid out in the showcases and lit with spot lights to show their beauty.

      The negative effect is that the explanations in Portuguese and (correct) English are often hardly decipherable because they aren't lit with an extra light. That is very negative indeed, especially as the museum doesn't have audio guides, not even in Portuguese. Not that I could understand the language, but it's a shame in my opinion. On the one hand 30 million Euro were invested for the conversion of the building into a museum whose annual costs for staff and maintenance must also be considerable. Where does the money come from? I bet it's tax money, and then the visitors who've paid for the museum so-to-speak can only get glimpses of information should they decide to pay the museum a visit.

      The exhibition on the second floor has the title 'Gods of Asia', it explores religion and mythology through costumes, masks, paintings, statues, 13,000 objects all in all. I didn't find it so fascinating because it lacks the obvious reference to the Portuguese history of exploration, trade and Christian missionary work, topics I'm more interested in.

      Despite my niggles I can recommend a visit if you're in Lisbon and have some free time left.

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