Gems of the New East: Under-the-Radar Museums to Explore

Looking at the global map of notable museums, few institutions beyond Western-European cities like London, Paris or Berlin come up. But the New East has quite a few gems of its own to offer. Here are just a few worth pinpointing.

© Karakalpastan State Museum

Nukus Museum of Art, Uzbekistan

Hidden in the post-industrial plains of Nukus, in the remote region of Karakalpakstan, the establishment of this unique museum was a sort of ‘mission impossible’ that could have cost its founder, Igor Savitsky, his life. The scion of a wealthy family, Savitsky became interested in collecting local folk art (artifacts and textiles) while working on an archaeological dig in 1950. Far away from the watchful eyes of the Soviet authorities in Moscow, he started collecting banned artworks from Central Asian and Russian painters—surrealists, cubists, futurists—some of whom lost their lives for their efforts. As his collection grew, he realized he could save the artworks—if not the lives of their creators—and accordingly set up the museum in 1966. Today it boasts the world’s second-largest collection of Russian avant-garde art (after St. Petersburg’s Russian Museum), and offers some 90,000 items ranging from Khorezm antiquities to contemporary Uzbek and Karakalpak artists, in addition to its incredible story.

Nukus Museum of Art
K.Rzaec Street, Nukus, Uzbekistan
www.savitskycollection.org/

© Flickr

Museum of Confiscated Art, Belarus

This unassuming museum on the Belarusian-Polish border displays a range of contraband art (and other assorted objects and furnishings) that has been seized from smugglers throughout the decades. Most of it was confiscated during the nineties, following the region’s political upheavals. Commendably, the authorities decided to display, rather than destroy, items that couldn’t be traced back to their rightful owners. The idiosyncratic collection is a hotchpotch of 18th-century religious icons, antique clocks, rare porcelain, and a variety of paintings. The museum doesn’t provide much information about its contents, and some exhibits have clearly been damaged during storage or transportation, but it’s an intriguing place full of objects that contain the secret stories of their former owners.

Museum of Confiscated Art
39 Lenin Street, Brest, Belarus

The Matenadaran © Gerd Eichmann

Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts (Matenadaran), Armenia

Although modern Armenia only gained independence as a state in 1918 , and then again after Soviet rule in 1991, Armenian cultural identity looks back to a rich, millennia-old history, evinced by centuries-old manuscripts that are a source of great national pride. In 1959, after having various libraries plundered and burned through the centuries, the government decided to build this imposing grey basalt building for the safe storage of the remaining manuscripts, many of which were written and richly illustrated during the Middle Ages. Although the majority of the 23,000 manuscripts—including fragments, documents and maps—are only accessible to researchers in the building’s main library, the public display rooms feature highlights such as the Vehamor Gospel (the oldest-known complete Armenian manuscript in the world), the 13th-century Homilies of Mush, plus medieval manuscripts on everything from mathematics to astrology in Greek and Syriac. Outside the museum, keep an eye out for the sculpture of the eponymous Mesrop Mashtots, inventor of the Armenian alphabet.

Matenadaran
53 Mashtots Avenue, Yerevan, Armenia
www.matenadaran.am/

Melnikov House, Moscow

This eye-catching cylindrical house is tucked away discreetly on a quiet side street in Moscow’s central district of Arbat. Built between 1927-29 as a private home and studio space by architect Konstantin Melnikov—best known for the glass crystal pyramid he created for Lenin’s sarcophagus, as well as more functionalist bus garages and workers’ club buildings—it’s a miracle it was given planning permission, and equally incredible that it wasn’t knocked down during the Soviet years. The limited resources available at the time—brick and wood—required Melnikov to be frugal and innovative. The ground-floor kitchen and bathroom are connected to the second-floor bedrooms and living room via a winding staircase, and there’s also a double-height studio space and rooftop terrace. One of the aesthetic highlights, also borne from practicality, is the small but distinctive set of hexagonal windows at the rear of the house—a feature dictated by the honeycomb lattice style of the building’s brickwork. The former residence is now a listed heritage site.

Melnikov House
Krivoarbatsky Lane, Moscow, Russia

Tolstoy's "Sunlit Meadows"

Yasnaya Polyana, Russia

Russian writers’ estates once abounded throughout the empire, from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow to the Dostoyevsky Museum in Saint Petersburg. But Leo Tolstoy’s sanctuary stands out amongst them. The Russian writer was born in this elegant estate—whose name translates as “Sunlit Meadows”— in 1828. Located a couple of hundred kilometers out of central Moscow, the property was originally acquired by his great grandfather in 1763, and after his marriage in 1862, Leo returned for another 48 years. Living simply in one of the guesthouses, it was here that he wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina, amongst other significant works, making it something of a pilgrimage site for serious Tolstoy fans. Having been transformed into a museum in 1921, many of its contents were fortunately whisked away to safety before the Nazis turned it into a military hospital. Today, the complex includes the great writer’s former bedroom, an expansive library containing over 20,000 books, and the building he transformed into a school for peasants. In the estate’s bucolic park, you can also find Tolstoy’s grave—unmarked, as per his request.

Yasnaya Polyana
Tula Oblast, Russia

@ Polin

POLIN, Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Poland

Opened officially in 2013, this is one of Europe’s most recent museums dedicated to Jewish history, as the strikingly contemporary building—by Finnish architects Rainer Mahlamäki and Ilmari Lahdelma—reveals. Located in Warsaw’s Muranów district, which was inhabited predominantly by Jews before the war, and was later transformed into the infamous Warsaw Ghetto by the Nazis, the main exhibition’s eight thematic sections sensitively trace the thousand-year history of Poland’s Jews, from the very first settlements to the horrors of the holocaust. As well as antique objects and paintings, the museum utilizes interactive exhibits, video projections and even reconstructions, such as a painted synagogue ceiling from Gwoździec (now part of Ukraine).

Polin
Mordechaja Anielewicza 6, Warsaw, Poland
www.polin.pl/en

DOX Centre in Prague © DOX

DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Czech Republic

When Prague’s DOX gallery opened in 2008, Holešovice was a fairly bleak and infrequently visited district. In the intervening decade or so, both the space, which has been described as Prague’s Tate Modern, and the corresponding area have become one of the city’s trendiest destinations. Set inside a vast 19th-century former factory building—topped with a quirky 42-meter steel-and-wood zeppelin since 2016—the exhibitions here present a savvy mix of local and international artists that often draw on non-artistic disciplines, from psychology and philosophy to history, sociology, and political science. There’s a busy events program that includes lectures and film screenings, educational programs for schools and families, and also a buzzy café, a bookstore and a design store that are worth browsing.

DOX Centre for Contemporary Art
Poupětova 1, Prague, Czech Republic
www.dox.cz

Pedvale Art Park, Latvia

Located in the scenic Abava River Valley in Sabile, this engaging art site presents 150 artworks in a 100-hectare environment characterized by gently rolling fields, forest areas and a snaking river. The museum’s mission is to bring unite pleasant natural landscape with cultural heritage and art; hence the permanent collection of works mostly created during various symposiums and open-air workshops, annually-changing exhibitions by Latvian and international artists, alongside works from the museum’s founder, the sculptor Ojars Freibergs. As such, Pedvale forms part of a wider display of public art in this region, which is slowly putting it on the global culture map. Be sure to leave time to visit the charming on-site guesthouse and restaurant set inside an old manor house, or feel free to bring your own picnic to enjoy on the expansive grounds.

Pedvale Art Park
Pedvāle, Abava parish, Latvia
www.pedvale.lv/en

Paul Sullivan is a travel writer, authoring guidebooks for the likes of Wallpaper, DK, and Rough Guides, and writing articles for Telegraph Travel, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, BBC Travel, AFAR.com, and National Geographic UK. He is also the founder of slowtravelberlin.com.