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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
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.
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
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.
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
— perhaps for a toddler or a doll.
Cummins half jokes that the docents are "knowledgeable to a
Because of the postponement, they had ample time to move from
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
drinking vessel for vodka and wine. Another docent brought her
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
What treasures will visitors to "Unseen
see? A surprisingly wide and varied range of art objects —
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
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
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
in a sleigh flatteringly embellished with a carved likeness of
Greek goddess of wisdom, velvet cushions, and other elaborate
That very sleigh will sit in the New Jersey State Museum until next
April. A sink-sized silver sculpture of "Peter I and his
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
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,
silver ash tray; elsewhere, an ornamented silver vodka charka. A
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
Other marvels on display include a massive pair of malachite vases
in the classic style, silver snuff boxes with maps and portraits
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
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
Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. For information,
call 609-984-5687; for tickets, call 800-766-6048. Admission $10
$8.50 seniors and students; $6 children under 12. Tickets are
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.
Christmas and New Year’s.
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