One Tank Trip

One Tank Trip: The Tsars' Cabinet

READING, Pa. - Caviar, please, in a feast fit for a king, or in this case a tsar. The Russian royal family -- the Romanovs. Save me a seat next to Peter the Great.

The latest exhibition at the Reading Public Museum begins with him and his plates.

"We haven't had an exhibit that has focused on the decorative arts on this scale, so there's something to learn here about styles, about the royal family of Russia," explained Scott Schweigart, the museum's curator.

And the way they dined. In The Tsar's Cabinet, you'll find more than 200 pieces of porcelain, enamel and glassware, all produced for or used by the royal family, much of it from Russia's Imperial Porcelain Factory and dating back to the early 18th century.

This wasn't just grab-a-sandwich for lunch on the way out the door. Instead, it was sit-down meals served.

"Actually, the Russians, not the French, are the ones who sort of are responsible for the way we eat today," Schweigart said. "The Russians were the ones who started the service, the hot plates coming out, the courses one after another."

So, many courses there are diary entries of royal visitors overwhelmed by the sheer volume of food. It was a show of wealth.

"A show of we are not exotic outsiders. We are just as erudite, and cultured and enlightened as the rest of Europe is, and Catherine the Great was the one who really honed in on that message," Schweigart explained.

Map: Reading Public Museum


There are more than 900 pieces in Catherine the Great's Cabinet Service, but Alexander I one-upped her with the Guriev Service, and it's 4,500 pieces. You'll look at dining in a new way.

You might think soup is just soup, but it's more than that when served in a royal tureen. There's a piece in the exhibit commissioned in 1847 and it turns soup into an experience.

"You can see that this soup tureen, the finial is a helmet, which refers back to a 17th century tsar, Alexai, a predecessor of Peter the Great," Schweigart said. "It's a nod to the past as Russian tsars were beginning to embrace their own dynasty."

It's a symbolic detail with a function. It's how you got to the soup and you'll see the detail on top of the teapot as well.

"So there are details in these that maybe if you just breeze through the show, maybe you wouldn't see, but if you stop and look and realize what sort of design elements are there, you gain a new appreciation," Schweigart explained.

And a peek at places you may never see with the plates from inside the Kremlin.

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