The Museum of Applied Arts is situated in the former home of Imperial Russian diplomat Alexander Polovtsev. A grand mansion decorated in traditional Uzbek style, the museum has a superb collection of applied arts – no one in Central Asia does it better than Uzbeks. Polovtsev was an avid collector of handicrafts and his personal possessions still form the heart of the collection.
Should you visit?
Exquisite handicrafts are strewn all over Uzbekistan. Just walk out of your hotel room in any Uzbek city, and the relatives of master craftsmen are falling over themselves to sell you their wares, not any less artful than what you may find in the museum. Plus, you can chat to the makers, haggle over the price, and take home your favourite pieces.
Besides the display of the collection with a small explanatory note next to each exhibit, the museum does not offer any story or additional info. This means:
If you are an arts & crafts fanatic: absolutely, definitely visit, and get a guide to learn more about the production and practical use of many of the items on display. There are some unique showpieces here, very old suzanis, and seeing them lined up next to each other makes for interesting comparative study.
Unlike the History Museum, you should visit the Applied Arts Museum at the start of your trip: it will serve as an excellent introduction. At the end of your trip, however: an inescapable feeling of déja-vu.
If you are not a fanatic: you will see many more exquisite houses when visiting Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, and the selection on the streets there will do you fine – you can skip this museum without regret.
Tsarist diplomat Polovtsev expressed his appreciation of Uzbek architecture by having his residence built by masters from Bukhara, Samarkand, Khiva, Ferghana and Tashkent. He was transferred before completion in 1907, so he never saw the finished courtyard of verandas and reception halls, vibrant with colour, ganch and wooden carving. The first public exhibition was held here in 1927, and it was classified as a national collection a decade later.
The mihrab niche in the main hall points in the opposite direction to Mecca as Polovtsev desired decorative, not functional Islam. Omar Khayyam quotes frame two doorways: ‘The world is a great caravanserai with two doors: one entrance and one exit. Every day new guests come to the caravanserai.’
As photographs on display inside show, the facade of the building has changed surprisingly little since its construction in the early 20th century: the gardens have matured, but the delicate columns and the pale blue colour scheme are original. In the museum’s central hall, it is the building itself that is the attraction: a stunning space with an ornately carved and vividly painted ceiling in typical Tajik style.
Among the store of 19th-20th century embroidery are many items essential to a bride: suzani wall-hangings and variants such as oi-palyak, lunar sky, and gulkurpa, flower blanket. Dopillar (skullcaps) display similar diversity in stitching, motifs and symbolism.
Carved wooden furniture includes tables and laukhi, folding book stands. Other halls feature regional ceramics, metalware, and musical instruments for festive occasions, such as karnai pipes and doira drums, and jewellery sets weighing up to 20 kilograms.
Shops, workshops & cafe
2 shops sell a selection of handmade items, prints and vintage clothing. You can most definitely do a better deal elsewhere in Uzbekistan. Best is of course to visit workshops and the masters themselves, but in the highly competitive tourist streets of Khiva, Samarkand and Bukhara, both selection and prices are also way better than at this museum.
The workshops that used to hold classes for tourists are gone.
The cafe is also not a must.