Leah Sloshberg

Karin Cummins

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This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on December 8,

1999. All rights reserved.

The Russians (Finally)

by Pat Summers

The Russians are coming! The Russians are not

coming! We hope the Russians will come later!

That’s the general chronology of the wondrous exhibition, "Unseen

Treasures: Imperial Russia and the New World," that has opened,

finally, at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton. When, sometime

last month, about two months after its disappointing and frustrating

postponement, word came that the Russians were really coming, it

provoked unmodified rapture in the museum environs. Work that had been

set aside was picked up once more; excitement grew all over again; the

good news went out.

And now, with the Russians having arrived, the New Jersey State Museum

is practically boiling over with excitement and pride, as well as

some 350 art objects and artifacts from 18th and 19th-century Russia,

representing various facets of its relations with the young United

States of America. From 1799, when the Russian American Company was

established, through its subsequent trade and culture activities in

Alaska and Northern California, the two nations interfaced on

countless levels: philosophical, political, cultural, artistic —

even romantic. To mark the 200th anniversary of the Russian American

Company, the American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation, a

non-profit organization founded in 1992, is sponsoring this

exhibition.

Last week’s press preview was an unabashed and understandable love-in

of hugs, praises, and pointing-with-pride to its facilitators and

to the exhibition itself, once threatened with the continuing status

of "Unseen Treasures" (officially because of shipping problems

but reportedly complicated by political concerns over recent American

seizure of foreign artworks). The blockbuster show, the likes of which

has never before been seen here, represents a bona fide coup with

a win-win outcome for both locales: Moscow and Trenton, and,

eventually, the other venues that follow.

But only a week ago, the exhibition was still being installed for

the show’s public opening on Tuesday, December 7, and various

celebratory events that preceded it.

Top Of Page
Leah Sloshberg

Museum director Leah P. Sloshberg apparently sees this

exhibition as the culmination of her tenure as head of the museum,

a position she has held since 1971. So intent was she on making it

happen — and doing it right — that she has postponed her

planned retirement from January, 2000, until sometime in the spring,

once the exhibition has moved on. As long ago as last summer, she was

hotel-hunting for the Russian curators who would accompany and oversee

installation of exhibition materials. Now, with "Unseen

Treasures" ready to be seen, it is nearly time for the curators to

return to Russia. Sloshberg speaks from the heart when she says of the

four: "They are my friends. I love every one of them."

Sloshberg’s spontaneous exclamation is the outward sign of the

"very harmonious working relationships that developed behind the

scenes," says Alexander P. Potemkin, executive director of the

foundation sponsoring the show. Extolling "trust" as the most

important quality in any joint venture of two states, he emphasizes

how trust played a major role in this hugely cooperative venture. For

this exhibition, it is a given that the process was as important as

the product. Ending the postponement surely took trust and even

statesmanship, but it also took contacts. Marking his continuing

commitment to Trenton’s economic and cultural revitalization,

businessman Shelley M. Zeiger — also the catalyst behind the

Moscow-Trenton sister-city link from the 1980s and a board member of

the sponsoring foundation — exerted his considerable influence,

taking the case for lifting the postponement to the Russian Prime

Minister. Success. Thus Sloshberg’s hug, with the words, "We did

it, Shelley!"

With six working days — and nights — before opening, the

museum was teeming with activity while it dressed in greens and red

ribbons for the winter holidays. Painters touched up trim, while other

workers planned displays, keeping in touch by walkie-talkie. Another

staff member arranged ceramic shards and other artifacts in a

showcase. Pieces to be mounted in the ship’s map room lay on tables,

covered in bubble wrap, with wall signs nearby, ready for hanging. One

spoke of the size of some shipping crates — imagine packing an

historic sleigh for safe transport — while another exclaimed over

the beautiful 18th and 19th-century gowns that are part of the show.

Top Of Page
Karin Cummins

Karin Cummins, the museum’s curator for education, speaks proudly

of the 35 docents who completed the training course for the show,

then had time to study some more, all the time hoping the show would

arrive. Only now were they seeing the objects first-hand, instead

of as slides. One amusing casualty of learning from slides was the

brightly painted wooden sleigh the docents had come to know —

or so they thought. On arrival, the actual sleigh proved to be a

miniature

— perhaps for a toddler or a doll.

Cummins half jokes that the docents are "knowledgeable to a

fault."

Because of the postponement, they had ample time to move from

"interested"

to "expert," so now they may have to fight the inclination

to tell visitors more than they may want to know. And some docents

for "Unseen Treasures" came with special expertise, she says,

pointing to one who specializes in foods, and can speak with authority

on "prianiki" and the carved wooden gingerbread molds in which

they were made, as well as vodka and the "charka," a

traditional

drinking vessel for vodka and wine. Another docent brought her

specialized

knowledge of horses and carriages to the relevant exhibition sections.

All the docents will be on hand in the galleries during December,

ready to answer visitors’ questions. By early in the new year, Cummins

will deploy them to conduct the myriad group tours that are

anticipated.

What treasures will visitors to "Unseen

Treasures"

see? A surprisingly wide and varied range of art objects —

jewelry,

paintings, prints, sculpture — and artifacts, or fragments of

life as it was lived then — snuff boxes and ash trays, prayer

books, desk sets, clothing, trading ship tools and memorabilia. For

all these fascinating things, the operative word is at least

"ornate,"

and often "opulent." In many cases, only "exotic"

applies. The Russia we see in this exhibition is not the Russia of

today’s newspapers, or those of 20 or 50 years ago; today’s political,

military, and economic concerns are engulfed here by yesterday’s rich

art and culture.

Although "Unseen Treasures" includes vignettes of life at

court, and in Siberia; on a sailing ship, and in Alaska, just the

names of those who ruled the Russian Empire during this

200-year-period

suggest the luxurious exoticism involved: Catherine, Peter, Ivan,

Alexander, Nicholas. Our visions of sleighs and furs and jewels —

and snow — are realized in this show. As part of her coronation

festivities, Catherine the Great rode in a staged masquerade

procession

in a sleigh flatteringly embellished with a carved likeness of

Minerva,

Greek goddess of wisdom, velvet cushions, and other elaborate

trappings.

That very sleigh will sit in the New Jersey State Museum until next

April. A sink-sized silver sculpture of "Peter I and his

Botik"

commemorates the 200th anniversary of the Russian Navy. A figure of

Peter the Great stands on a stylized version of an old English wooden

boat found on the grounds of the Romanov estate.

Among countless fascinating elements, the exhibition features

historical

documents, such as letters from Thomas Jefferson, Leo Tolstoy, and

Abraham Lincoln; court costumes; fabulous jewels; church relics; and

ornate bric-a-brac, like the pure gold counters Catherine the Great

used when she played cards. In one gallery, there is a cunning,

dolphin-shaped

silver ash tray; elsewhere, an ornamented silver vodka charka. A

bishop’s

mitre from early 19th-century Russia is made of velvet and silk with

pearls, gold, diamonds, sapphires, rubies, emeralds and enamel work.

A Russian Orthodox priest in Alaska wore the deerskin vestments on

display. With designs worked into both the hide and the pelt sides,

these garments are simply amazing to contemplate — and probably

much more comfortable to look at than to wear.

Echoing their elders, little girls at the exhibition will probably

"ooh" and "ah" over the gowns on display. In rich

fabrics and striking colors, they prompt viewers to wonder how they

were "preserved" so well since then. And, to be even-handed

at the sex-role stereotyping, the girls’ brothers will be awed by

the carved wood model of the 19th-century brig, "Mercury,"

complete with parchment colored textile sails. Such a trading ship

would have sailed the Pacific during the period included in

"Unseen

Treasures."

Other marvels on display include a massive pair of malachite vases

in the classic style, silver snuff boxes with maps and portraits

incised

and painted on them, and a portable folding triptych icon, of copper,

gilding, and enamel, which we learn was commonly used in Russia by

travelers on land and sea. Similarly, a copper and enamel icon of

St. Nicholas the Miracleworker, regarded as the patron saint of

travelers,

was sure to be placed on ships. A silver "cockerel wine set"

from late 19th-century Moscow features a rooster-shaped carafe, with

enameled features, feathers, and wings. But the accompanying charkas

— formed like chicks, down to their spindly supporting gilt legs

— take the prize, doubtlessly adding to the imbibing fun.

Moving on, from one interesting and surprising item to another, the

great variety of this show contributes it its appeal. "Unseen

Treasures" is a surprisingly warm exhibition to visit — maybe

partly heated by the enthusiasm and exertions of the state museum

staff and everyone who helped make this show possible. Diplomats all.

— Pat Summers

Unseen Treasures: Imperial Russia and the New World, New

Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. For information,

call 609-984-5687; for tickets, call 800-766-6048. Admission $10

adults;

$8.50 seniors and students; $6 children under 12. Tickets are

distributed

on an hourly basis. Show continues to April 16.

Tuesday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Closed

Christmas and New Year’s.


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