The display installed in halls on the top floor of the Winter Palace presents selected examples of manuscripts and woodblock printed texts created by the various peoples of the East whose book culture extended from Europe to Japan over the course of the last two millennia.
The exhibition is made up of three sections, each of which corresponds to a region with a shared cultural and historical communality: the Near and Middle East; India and Central Asia; the Far East. Such a division is to a considerable extent arbitrary and based not so much on geography as on the dissemination and movement of cultures. In particular, in Central Asia in different periods under the influence of different religious traditions – first Buddhism, then Islam – different book traditions existed that had their roots in India and the Middle East respectively. The same applies to India itself at the time of the Mughal Emperors, at whose court an Islamic book culture flourished that was closely connected with the Persian one featured in the Middle Eastern section.
The 200 items in the exhibition include manuscripts and woodblock prints from the collection of the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts and also artefacts of material culture from the stocks of the State Hermitage that are connected with the making of books or their use. That link is understood in broad terms: there are not only objects that have a direct relationship to the making and reading books (brushes, kalams, cases for them, ink and woodblocks), but also those used in religious practices along with them (icons, crosses, church plate), that display visual parallels in their decoration (articles of clothing, fragments of murals) or are associated with those who commissioned or owned them (coins) and, finally, simply recreate the cultural context of the period. Within each section the manuscripts are presented chronologically, while the other objects are grouped in such a way as to illustrate the cultural or visual context of a book’s creation.