Centuries before globalization became a buzzword, it took on a Portuguese accent. The reason was trade. By pioneering an eastbound passage around the Cape of Good Hope in the 15th century, Portugal dominated the spice routes and became a great mercantile power, establishing a presence in Africa, India, Sri Lanka and East Asia, where it had bases in Japan, China and Indonesia.
Portuguese superiority was not to last, however. Other European powers especially the Dutch began to encroach on Portugal's trading posts in the 17th century, and by the century's end, Portuguese traders were being eclipsed by the Dutch, English and Spanish. But in many ways, the Western world's awareness of, and infatuation with, all things Asian from spices to art can be traced to the early Portuguese merchants and explorers. Now a new museum in Lisbon attempts to reflect the cultural legacy of those pioneering days.
The Museu do Oriente (Museum of the Orient) was opened in May by Portuguese President Aníbal Cavaco Silva and Prime Minister José Sócrates. In planning for nearly two decades, the $46.6 million facility was set up by the Fundação Oriente (Orient Foundation) a Portuguese cultural organization established in the former colony of Macau in 1988 and showcases a vast array of Asian artifacts on five floors in a magnificent Art Deco building along the Lisbon waterfront at Alcãntara.
Among the Museu do Oriente's collections are many prominent pieces that have never been publicly exhibited, including rare crucifixes, snuff bottles, screens, ornaments, paintings and antiques from as far afield as East Timor, Japan, Goa, Korea and Macau (the latter meriting a section of its own). There is also a special exhibition devoted to Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and Shinto religious objects. But art experts and historians are most excited about the reappearance of a well-known collection that has not been shown publicly for many years.
The Kwok On Collection sometimes called the Pimpaneau Collection is considered the world's finest trove of Asian theatrical and sacred masks, costumes and related pieces. Originally devoted to Chinese opera (it features, for example, the definitive catalog of memorabilia from the career of Mei Lanfang, the great Beijing Opera master who died in 1961 at the age of 67), the Kwok On Collection numbered thousands of pieces by the time it was housed in a small dedicated museum in Paris in the 1980s. By then, it had fallen into the hands of Jacques Pimpaneau, a French sinologist who added similar objects, increasing the collection to around 10,000 pieces, before donating it to the Fundação Oriente. The foundation has also enlarged the collection (by some 2,000 items), and its astonishing breadth is merely hinted at by the new museum display, which numbers just 650 pieces.
In a neat illustration of the shifting balance of wealth between West and East, much of the early funding for the museum stemmed from Macau. As a condition of its former gaming monopoly, casino mogul Stanley Ho's Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau donated tens of millions of dollars to the Fundação Oriente up until 1996. The money provided the basis for the Fundação Oriente's present riches, and helped elevate it to the ranks of Europe's 20 largest foundations. Ho has said he hopes the new museum will further the understanding of Asian culture. There's little doubt that the goal will be achieved. In fact, since the museum's opening, thousands of Asian-art and antique devotees have been walking around like they've hit an educational jackpot.