Oriental Institute celebrates 100th anniversary, showcasing its work to public

The Oriental Institute (OI) of the Czech Academy of Sciences is celebrating 100 years of existence this year. One of the oldest institutions dedicated to the study of Oriental cultures in Central and Eastern Europe, the OI has played its part in furthering not just domestic but also worldwide knowledge about Asian cultures, languages and history. Marking the occasion, the institute has organised several events profiling its work for the ongoing Week of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

While it became a part of what was then the newly-established Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences in 1953, the Oriental Institute traces its beginnings to 1922, when it was officially approved by the National Assembly of the First Czechoslovak Republic.

Dr Táňa Dluhošová, the director of the institute, explains.

“Professor Alois Musil arrived from Vienna to Prague in 1916 and he had this idea to set up an institute that would have two branches.

“One of them would be economic and aim to help the new Czechoslovak state get its foot in the door when it came to so-called ‘oriental’ lands.

Táňa Dluhošová | Photo: Noemi Fingerlandová,  ČRo Plus

“It was supposed to serve as an infrastructural basis for state and private companies who wanted to do business and start some sort of economic collaboration with countries that were mainly located in the middle-east.”

This economic department generated money to support the institute’s other branch which was made up of academics.

“People from this academic branch were sent to those oriental countries that they were interested in to learn more and to provide information to the business department and to the general public.”

Unlike the Czech universities that were forcibly shut down, the institute managed to continue its educational work also during the Nazi occupation period. This was largely thanks to the fact that the Professor of the German part of Prague’s Charles University, Arabist and Nazi party member Adolf Grohmann, was named the director of the institute.

The Oriental Institute | Photo: ČT24

“This meant that when the Second World War came to an end there was a new generation of Orientalists who were ready to start their careers, which was not the case for many of the other disciplines.

“It’s why the Oriental studies institute had a very steep trajectory and developed very fast during the 1950s and 1960s.

Now a part of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, the Oriental Institute lost its economic branch and focused exclusively on academic work. It saw its arguably greatest period during the 1960s, says Dr Dluhošová.

Illustrative photo: Czech Academy of Sciences

“At its peak it had about 90 employees. Many of them were traveling abroad as visiting professors, giving lectures and so on. There were several research topics, or clusters of scholars who studied certain phenomena that were present in different regions.

“It was a kind of comparative research regarding modernity and how states, especially in East and South Asia, developed vis-à-vis their encounters with the West and what modernity actually meant for them.”

The other significant cluster related to lexicology – the study of the form, meaning, and behaviour of words. The institute’s researchers managed to come up with a new lexicological methodology which was also adopted abroad.

Just as many other Czechoslovak institutions, the institute saw major changes in personnel after the 1968 invasion of the country and the implementation of normalisation. Many of the institute’s leading researchers would emigrate, going on to forge successful careers abroad in Western universities. Meanwhile, the institute’s leadership and research became much more politicised.

Illustrative photo: Czech Academy of Sciences

After the Velvet Revolution, the Oriental Institute saw a gradual exodus of Communist-era staff as well as the introduction of more multi-disciplinary research. The institute’s cohort of researchers has also become far more diverse in recent years, says Dr Dluhošová.

“I think this really helped us to open up and internationalise. Now nearly a half of our staff are foreigners.”

The Oriental Institute | Photo: Juan de Vojníkov,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

While the institute no longer has set clusters of research, the head of the institute says that its strengths now lie especially in research related to East Asia, including Taiwan, and the Middle East. For example, one of the institute’s current programmes, Monuments of Mosul in Danger, focuses on analysing the damage caused to that city’s cultural heritage when it was occupied by the so-called Islamic State and recreating them through a 3D model.

This project of the institute, as well as many others, are currently being presented to the public as part of the Week of the Czech Academy of Sciences, which runs until Sunday, November 6.

Information about the institute’s events, which range from lectures to interactive workshops on Chinese dance and writing, can be found here: https://www.tydenavcr.cz/program/#c=0&a02[]=22