It’s been a long two years since the Freer Gallery of Art, the nation’s premier gallery of Asian Art was open on the National Mall in Washington D.C.
“What began as a prosaic need to upgrade mechanical systems in the Freer allowed us to reinstate this building to Freer’s pristine vision,” said Director Julian Raby, of the Freer Gallery. Freer believed in “points of contact… He believed in commonalities – of shared sense of beauty across different peoples. an inspired belief in universalism in art.”
The Freer Gallery was the first museum built on the National Mall in Washington D.C. Detroit industrial Charles Lang Freer donated his collection in 1906, but the museum first opened in 1923 after his death. The Freer, along with its sibling museum, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, form the National Museums of Asian Art.
Among the new exhibits at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art are “Divine Felines,” a peek at the cult of the cat in Ancient Egypt from the Brooklyn Museum, “Encountering The Buddha” is a vast expansive look at the many faces of the Buddha and “Terminal” a contemporary exhibit by Sobodh Guptais. Finally, there was “Resound: Bells of Ancient China.”
It’s possible to spend hours browsing the lush displays in “Encountering the Buddha:Art and Practice across Asia.”
Stone heads of the Buddha show the different ways he was conceptualized in different cultures including India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Thailand.
Along with the stunning sculptures and golden art, there is a digital film created for the exhibition of a Buddhist site in Sri Lanka.
There is also the Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room with 243 objects from Chinese, Nepalese, Tibetan, and Mongolian artists.
Don’t overlook “Resound: Bells of Ancient China.” Over 60 bells, some of which date back to the Chinese Bronze age circa 1800 BC, and as recent as 9 A.D. Elaborately designed, the bells range from an inch high to almost three feet.
What is the most striking is the interactive aspect of the exhibit. Two tablets on one wall show the difference in the ring of the bells, Chinese and European, through the different pitches.
Bells were used in warfare as well as court music. A wall panel highlights the treasures found in the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng. He was buried with the instruments of his orchestra, including sixty-five bells. Oh, and a number of women who might have been his musicians.
In “Divine Felines,” obviously cats are the masters. The Egyptians revered the cats, given them status as royalty or even gods. Many know of Bastet, the cat-headed goddess or Sakhmet, the lion-headed goddess who is at the door of the exhibition but did you know that there was a feline goddess Mafdet from the 3rd century BC?
According to the exhibit, she was “believed to guard worshipers against snakes and scorpions and to fiercely protect the pharaoh and the gods.”
In the agricultural landscape of Egypt, the cat was revered for its usefulness in killing vermin such as mice and snakes but also for her devotion to her children, and protector of her owners. After death, they were often mummified and buried in coffins.
One word of warning. Above the cylindrical mummy of a cat is explicit detail about the x-rays of the broken bones of the kitten within. The explanations might be upsetting to young visitors. The mummy is from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Not to be neglected, there are several dogs in the exhibit as well. No they aren’t given equal time. The Egyptians prized their canines giving them protective powers and regarding them as guardians of the dead.
But this exhibit belongs to the cats. (Want to see dogs? Go to the National Gallery of Art across the Mall. The Europeans loved their dogs.)
The “new look” at the Freer is aimed at not just exhibiting their collections but exploring of the links between Asia and America.
The Freer Gallery of Art cleaned down to their original terrazzo floors and re-designed the ceilings to provide “diffused and reflected light.” The many changes were discussed in my earlier posting here.
The museum’s exhibits were changed to show they weren’t “just an accumulation of stuff from a certain period. It’s a mini exhibition. Each gallery has a theme and a title,” said Raby.
According to Chief Curator of Persian, Arab, and Turkish Art, Massumeh Farad, even the signage on the items has been changed. Instead of saying, Bowl, ewer or figure, “they have enticing titles that immediately introduce our visitor to the principal idea.”
For example, “A group of 14th century enamel glassware from Egypt is introduced as part of Cairo Nights since they were part of Egyptian banquets,” said Farad.
Lovers of quirky details should check out the wonderful scroll by Fanning in one of the galleries that has a Buddhist Lohan, Confucian scholar and a monkey. Oh, and earth demons. Don’t miss the happy demons.
Among other chances, the Gallery is beta testing a Freer “Highlights Tour” about their galleries. They will be in seven languages: Chinese, Korean Hindi, Arabic, Spanish, Japanese, Persian and Spanish. They are also introducing podcasting across the exhibitions. One of them is on the Apocalypse “which considers themes of destruction in Asia and how these have served as a means for renewal and creation.”
For those with limited time, look for the new red labels to get “a sense of what the gallery is about.” It will be a fast tour of the collections.
Numerous sponsorsworked with the Gallerys to put on the exhibits. Mars Petcare provided for the “Divine Felines”, and the Robert H. No. Ho Family Foundation of Hong Kong for the continuing support of “Encountering the Buddha.”
The museum’s opening was celebrated by having the classical 300 foot facade become a screen for of Freer’s trips and Asian art, a night market in the Illuminations, including dancing and music.
The Freer Gallery of Art is at 12 St SW and Jefferson Drive on the National Mall, Washington DC.
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery ,1050 Independence Ave SW