The State Museum of Applied Arts of Uzbekistan provides an excellent introduction to Uzbek history and culture. Centrally located in Tashkent, it displays more than 7,000 examples of traditional folk art. These include a range of mediums from decorative glass to porcelain and fabrics, all dating from the first half of the 19th century to the present. Today, the museum draws visitors not only for the artworks on display but also for the museum’s traditional architecture, which features a layout and elements common to mosques and to late-19th century aristocratic households.
History and Architecture of the Museum
The first exhibition of applied art of Uzbek artists was held here in 1927. At the time, it became known as the “National Exhibition of Uzbekistan.” Over the years, the museum’s collection has grown with the addition of jewelry, hand-made embroidery, and carpets. In 1938, the collection gained a permanent home in its current building, a former palace of the Russian diplomat Alexander Polovtsev. In 1960, the National Exhibition was renamed the “Permanent Exhibition of Applied Art of Uzbekistan.” It gained its current name in 1997, when Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Cultural Affairs, which now oversees the museum, granted it the status of “State Museum of Applied Art.”
The palace that now houses the museum was built in 1870. The central hall is a traditional mehmonkhona, a word that roughly translates as “guest room”, and is meant for receiving visitors. Designed like a mosque, it is square-shaped with four columns and, along one wall, a mihrab, an indentation meant to help the faithful direct their prayers towards Mecca. However, the palace’s mihrab only plays a decorative role here – as it does not actually point towards Mecca.
The room truly awes its visitors and is a museum piece in and of itself. Its walls feature 200 ornamental motifs and 4 tockchas (niches), which are traditional to Islamic architecture with built-in decorative shelves to display ceramics. The fireplaces next to each of the tokchas are decorated as well and each topped with an onion dome. The two contemplative inscriptions above the doors are written in Persian but with Arabic writing: “The world is like a caravanserai with two doors, they enter through one, and they leave through the other,” reads one; “And every day there are more and more new guests in this caravanserai,” says the other.
A Visit to the Museum (Winter, 2024)
I visited the State Museum of Applied Art during the winter, which ensured a quiet space with very few other visitors on site. There were several traditional folk art pieces, including fabrics, embroidery, skullcaps, carpets, musical instruments, miniatures, ceramics, jewelry, and much more. Each artifact had a short caption, and there were posters explaining various categories of displays. With free WiFi available from the museum, free audio tours were accessible in Russian and English with a QR code provided at the ticket office. For those wishing to gain more insight into the artworks, the audio tour was the perfect opportunity.Although closed during my visit, there was a gift shop with souvenirs near the exit.
The museum can be separated into five sections. The first section focused on embroidery, including hand embroidery and machine embroidery, national clothes, doppi or skullcaps, carpets, and a small section on musical instruments. I particularly enjoyed one machine-made suzani, which is a type of embroidery. Composed of the parts named “Spring”, “Motherhood”, and “Harvest”, it was captivating at first glance and fitting of its title. Machine embroidery was introduced to Uzbekistan at the end of the 19th century and quickly became a popular alternative for commercial craftsmen to time-consuming hand embroidery. From the red circles and black floral patterns on the border, one can tell this piece is from Samarkand, where that style dominated.
Exiting the fabrics section, one passes through the central hall to the oriental miniatures. These tiny paintings include a surprising amount of detail and decoration. Some depict scenes from popular folk stories, such as “Nasriddin Afandi” and “Xusrav and Shirin,” both popular with Uzbek children. The miniature of “Nasriddin Afandi’s Story” depicts him in a red hat and a wealthy man sitting on a donkey. This painting is exactly like the popular cartoon that was made of the story, which teaches children the value of money earned through hard work.
The many doors in the hall lead to rooms filled with ceramics, glass work, and clay whistles, which are considered national toys. Notable amongst them are seven decorative plates from the series “Seven Beauties” based on Alisher Navoi’s poem “The Seven Planets.” Each beauty represents a country or region: India, Iraq, Iran, Mongolia, Sogia, Fergana, and Kharezm. The last door in the miniature painting hall leads to several rooms with more national artifacts like jewelry, wood carving, painting on wood, metalsmithing, and lacquer miniatures.
Overall, The State Museum of Applied Arts of Uzbekistan is an excellent introduction to intricate and beautiful craftsmanship that Uzbekistan has been historically known for. It covers a breadth of applied workmanship, and is itself is a prime example of 19th century architecture.
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The State Museum of Applied Arts of Uzbekistan provides an excellent introduction to Uzbek history and culture. Centrally located in Tashkent, it displays more than 7,000 examples of traditional folk art. These include a range of mediums from decorative glass to porcelain and fabrics, all dating from the first half of the 19th century to […]
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