Washington, D.C.’s Renovated Freer/Sackler Galleries Unveiled

Amy Henderson
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Detail, The Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room for the Alice S. Kandell Collection Photograph: 2010. Objects: Tibet, Chine, and Mongolia, 13th-20th century Mixed media. Gifts and promised gifts from the Alice S. Kandell Collection

The Freer Gallery of Art was the first Smithsonian museum to showcase art. It opened in 1923 to house the Asian collections of Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer, and in 1987 it was joined on the National Mall by its sibling museum, the Sackler Gallery. Closed the past eighteen months for renovation, their re-opening on October 14-15th was headlined as “Where Asia Meets America”—two galleries, one destination. (F/S press release, 10/11/17)

The re-opening was characterized throughout by the idea of “illumination.” The renovated Freer Gallery now literally sparkles: natural light flows throughout, and carpets have been removed to reveal the original terrazzo floors. Instead of chronologically, the collections are now displayed thematically around displays of Chinese jade, the body image in Indian art, and the cultural exchange between Islam and the East along the Silk Road. Refurbished, the collections now glow with a wonderful elegance. According to director Julian Raby, the idea was to evoke founder Charles Freer’s original aesthetic vision (Raby introduction at press preview, 10/12/17).

Right: Cat’s Head, 30 B.C.E. to 3rd C. C.E. Brooklyn Museum. Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund 30.116

Beyond Asia, Freer’s collecting interests were diverse: his acquisitions include Whistler’s “Peacock Room,” which has now been beautifully refurbished, along with splendid Whistler Nocturnes and such important Sargent paintings as “Breakfast in the Loggia.”

The Sackler Gallery’s illumination is equally impressive. Constructed underground, this museum makes up for its lack of natural light by incorporating brilliant lighting design in its exhibitions. The temporary shows on display now include “Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice across Asia,”and “Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt,” which conveys the godly role these creatures played in earlier times—and deservedly so, my cat adds. There is also an exhibit on bells—“Resound: Bells of Ancient China”—that has videos and interactive displays that allow visitors to hear and compare the acoustic properties of various bells.

Left: Subodh Gupta, Terminal 2010 Qasim, Brass, thread, variable dimensions. Installation view, “India: Art Now,” 2012, Arken Museum of Modern Art, Ishoj, Denmark.

Below, right: Initiation Card (tsakali), Western Tibet, 15th century, Opaque watercolor on paper. Private collection LTS2015.2.60 

The re-opening of the Freer and Sackler Galleries is a stunning example of how traditional museums can update their identities for contemporary audiences. Director Julian Raby’s objective was to create “a temple of contemplation and a theater of imagination.” He and his talented staff have succeeded, and the result is a 21st century museum experience that is truly “illuminating.”

By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer

The Freer and Sackler Galleries are open daily except Dec. 25th. For more information, visit freersackler.si.edu.

Amy Henderson is Historian Emerita of the National Portrait Gallery.

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