Open F|S: Digital Zero

Composite of 700 images from the Freer Ramayana.

Composite of 700 images from the Freer Ramayana.

Courtney O’Callaghan is chief digital officer at the Freer|Sackler.

We’ve reached an important milestone at the Freer|Sackler, an effort we’re calling Digital Zero. As of this writing, we’ve become the first Smithsonian museums to digitize their collections. This is a great opportunity for scholars and researchers as well as our everyday virtual visitors to have 24/7 access to our works of art.

What exactly is Digital Zero? For the Freer|Sackler, it means that we’ve photographed and uploaded our entire collection into a digital asset management system—more than 40,000 objects and almost twice as many images, from Whistler’s Peacock Room to the tiniest unnamed ceramic sherd. We have examined the rights information on every object and marked them appropriately. We have reviewed records, both complete and incomplete, and deemed them acceptable to make public.

On January 1, 2015, we will finally share all of our objects and accompanying data with the public. We will make available 40,000+ works as high-resolution images with (often) detailed metadata, available for non-commercial use by anyone.

Digital Zero gives us the freedom to begin the rapid prototyping of digital offerings. It allows us to focus on how our visitors want to interact with our collection. And it enables our creative allies to peruse our objects and form their own endlessly variable takes on the Freer|Sackler legacy.

But this is simply the base from which we begin our digital journey. As our curators and their collaborators discover new insights, new connections, and new interpretations of our storied holdings, we must acknowledge the fact that our work is on shifting sands. Our understanding of our own collection continually evolves and changes.

We hope that by releasing this information, we will encourage others to join our journey of discovery and help us fill in the gaps, share stories, and think of new ways to envision and enliven these objects. As we move from the idea of museums as spaces for the static delivery of a monolithic point of view into ones where our objects inspire communal storytelling, and where we share diverse perspectives that are alive and changing, we will be able to engage our visitors in ways that we cannot yet imagine.

This is only the first phase. If you are interested in being part of our adventure, email us at openfs@si.edu and we will include you in our plans.


Meaning and Melody

Folio of calligraphy, signed by Mir Imad Hasani; Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1611–12; borders signed by Muhammad Hadi; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; Purchase, F1942.15b

Folio of calligraphy, signed by Mir Imad Hasani; Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1611–12; borders signed by Muhammad Hadi; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; Purchase, F1942.15b

Michael Wilpers is manager of performing arts at the Freer|Sackler.

The Sackler’s current exhibition Nasta’liq: The Genius of Persian Calligraphy demonstrates the occasional tension between writing meant to be read and that which is valued primarily for its artistry. One of the more flamboyant Persian scripts on display in the exhibition is almost impossible for most viewers to read. Ornate Persian scripts have often been used in architecture and ceramics, more as decoration than signage.

This kind of tension between intelligibility and artfulness has played out many times in the history of music, between songs with easily understood words and those in which lyrics are almost overwhelmed by melodic invention. A Westerner might compare the emphasis on the words in Christian congregational singing with the kind of melodic invention of a choral fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach, where sometimes the words hardly seem to matter.

Perhaps no sacred music tradition is more devoted to clarity of text than the Vedic chant of Hinduism. You can hear a sample in the first track of our 2006 podcast of Gustav Holst’s “Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda,” featuring Venkatesh Sastri of the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple and recorded at the Freer Gallery. Only three pitches are used and almost every syllable gets its own note, making it easy for anyone who understands Sanskrit to follow along. At the opposite extreme of the Hindu tradition is the classical music of South India, where devotional songs (kritis) are so well known by their melodies that virtuoso musicians can perform lengthy improvisations on them without any need for words at all, confident that their audience will know them. A good example is our 2009 podcast featuring South Indian violinist L. Subramaniam performing highly elaborated variations on devotional songs by Tyagaraja (1767–1847) and his father, V. Lakshminarayana (1911–1990).

Coincidentally, at the very time that Persian nasta’liq script was reaching its peak of development—the mid-sixteenth century—the Roman Catholic Church ordered that sacred music be made more understandable. Composers were to refrain from disguising the words of the liturgies in overly elaborate melodies and counterpoint. One target of these reforms was a genre of medieval plainchant that stretched out each syllable of text over a long string of notes. An excellent example can be heard in our podcast of Cappella Romana singing the fourteenth-century Invitatorium in the Greek Orthodox tradition. Simpler music—and more intelligible lyrics—were in demand again two hundred years later when Bach and Handel were writing their most complex works, a style heard in the music of their contemporary Domenico Scarletti and in our podcast of the Gulbenkian Choir.

The Islamic world saw its own reforms of sacred music when orthodox legalists condemned the ornate style of Koranic recitations that appeared in the ninth to twelfth century. Melodic virtuosity is nevertheless still practiced by some specialists in Koranic recitation, while a much simpler chant style is prescribed for laypeople. In the South Asian music known as qawwali, Islamic texts are joined with praises for Sufi saints in renditions that are sometimes straightforward and at other times in a highly elaborated style. Such contrasts can be heard on our podcast by the Chisty Sufi Sama Ensemble.

View our complete list of podcasts here.

Nasta’liq: The Genius of Persian Poetry remains on view through May 3, 2015.


A Matter of Life and Death

Frontal from the base of a funerary couch with Sogdian musicians and dancers and Buddhist divinities; 550-577; China; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1915.110

Frontal from the base of a funerary couch with Sogdian musicians and dancers and Buddhist divinities;
550–77; China; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1915.110

Rachel Bissonnette, a student at the University of Michigan, recently interned in the Scholarly Programs and Publications Department at Freer|Sackler.

The Freer|Sackler and the University of Michigan jointly publish an annual periodical called Ars Orientalis, which celebrates its sixtieth anniversary this year. Ars Orientalis isn’t exactly “light reading,” but it is an esteemed academic journal that produces pioneering articles on the arts of Asia, the Islamic world, and the ancient Near East. Ars Orientalis themes each of its issues, and Volume 44’s theme is “Arts of Death in Asia.” This exciting issue examines pan-Asian cultures, religious traditions, and the art that honors the deceased and warns of death’s inevitability. The print volume has just been released, and the first digital version of Ars Orientalis will be released soon!

However, you don’t have to wait for the publication to learn about some amazing funerary art. The Freer Gallery has a wonderful Sogdian funerary couch base on display. The couch, called a shichuang, is made of multiple marble slabs. The museum has three slabs on display, which were purchased by Charles Lang Freer in 1915; five other parts of the shichuang are now dispersed throughout various museum collections. Our couch dates to 550–77 CE, which was prime time for Silk Road trade between the Middle East and China. The ancient kingdom of Sogdiana (present-day southern Uzbekistan and western Tajikistan) traded luxury goods with the Tang dynasty in China. This profitable trade resulted in our wonderful funerary couch.

Shichuangs were used as burial furniture for the repose of the deceased. The couches were typically decorated with elaborately carved scenes inspired by teachings of Confucius or protective spirits to guide the dead in the afterlife. However, the Freer Gallery’s funerary couch is decorated with Buddhist themes, musicians, and dancers. The characters are in non-Chinese garb (boots, tight pants, and belted jackets). These costumes and Buddhist themes are likely due to the Sogdian influence from the Silk Road.

Explore the couch along with other spooky objects during our Halloween-themed Fear at the Freer event tonight!


Zooming In: Tools of the Manuscript Illustrator (part two)

Geometric patterns in Islamic manuscripts

Geometric patterns in Islamic manuscripts

Amanda Malkin is the Hagop Kevorkian Fund Fellow Paper Conservator at the Freer|Sackler. This is the second in a series of blog posts that explores geometric patterns in Islamic paintings.

It is clear that the complicated geometric patterns I have observed in many manuscript paintings have, at their core, the circle and the square. During my research into the tools and techniques of manuscript painters, I uncovered two schools of thought regarding the working processes and specific methods used to create these miniscule, complex patterns.

The first theory—and my initial assumption—is that Islamic artisans and craftsmen utilized the long-appreciated ruler and compass to create geometric patterns, which are known as girih. It is exciting to see that, by overlapping certain shapes and connecting those shapes with the straight line of a ruler, one can produce endless geometric constructions. This theory, known as strapwork, is accepted by many scholars and institutions that collect and study Islamic art.

It is possible, however, that another method of construction was utilized in ancient Islam, and this is the second, more recent hypothesis. Physicists Peter J. Lu and Paul J. Steinhardt, of Harvard and Princeton Universities, respectively, proposed that, by using a group of five tiles of varying shapes, artisans could more quickly and exactly construct extremely complex geometric designs. These tiles are called Girih tiles, and they are described by the physicists as “equilateral polygons decorated with lines.” The shapes of the polygons are not random but stem from the empty spaces observed within the basic patterns of circles and squares. When you observe, for example, repeated hexagons, you will see that there are additional shapes created between them.

Steinhardt and Lu’s theory is based on the existence of a late fifteenth-century object in the collection of the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, known as the Topkapi Scroll. The scroll was discovered in 1986 and contains drawings and pattern constructions using the five Girih tiles, likely used as a reference document in a craftsman’s workshop during the Timurid dynasty.

In light of the exciting evidence discovered on the Topkapi Scroll, I believe that both methods described above were likely utilized by illustrators in different regions and with varying skill levels, in order to assist them in the manner that best suited their work.

View Peter Lu’s animation of the Topkapi Scroll.

Stayed tuned for Amanda’s third—and final—post in the series.


Finding Fish for “Bountiful Waters”

Carp ascending a waterfall; Ohara Koson (Japanese, 1877–1945), Japan, ca. 1926; ink and color on paper; F2002.15

Carp ascending a waterfall; Ohara Koson (Japanese, 1877–1945), Japan, ca. 1926; ink and color on paper; F2002.15

Cecelia Reed is the editor of the Smithsonian Associates‘ monthly program guide. A longer version of this article originally appeared in their August 2014 newsletter.

The waters that surround the island nation of Japan have always been an integral part of its life and culture. Legend has it that the islands were born of male and female deities that descended from heaven. The mountains, rivers, and lakes became home to the plants and marine life that have sustained human life for millennia.

Japanese respect and appreciation for this life in all its beauty and variety is at the heart of Bountiful Waters: Aquatic Life in Japanese Art, on view at the Freer Gallery of Art through September 14. The exhibition brings together for the first time a selection of woodblock prints, paintings, illustrated books, and ceramics from the museum’s collections, many of which were gifts of founder Charles Lang Freer. However, the origin of the show’s highlight—20 woodblock prints of fish and crustaceans by artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), known as the “Large Fish” series—is another story entirely.

Hiroshige’s fish didn’t leap suddenly onto the museum walls. Rather, it took nearly two decades to find and catch them all, says Ann Yonemura, the Freer|Sackler’s senior associate curator of Japanese art. “I have been working with John Fuegi and Jo Francis, the collectors of the [Large Fish] prints, for almost 20 years,” she explains. When this partnership began, Fuegi, today a documentary filmmaker, was a professor at the University of Maryland with an interest in Japanese art. “He came into the museum and asked to look at a rare Edo period printing block from Hiroshige’s fish series” that had come from Charles Lang Freer, Yonemura recalls. “When John saw the dreadful condition of the actual finished print, he asked if I’d be interested in his helping to build, incrementally over time, a set for the museum that was in better condition. I told him it was a great idea.” Fuegi started the project in 1995. Today, the Freer’s is one of the few public collections with a complete set of prints.

The result of this 20-year curator-collector partnership, says Yonemura, is a “spectacular collection of Japanese fish prints and paintings” from which she was able to design a rich and varied exhibition. Bountiful Waters features the first showing of a full set of prints in the “Large Fish” series, accompanied by lively and lyrical verses by various poets.

Bountiful Waters remains on view through this Sunday. Learn more about Japanese art in the Freer|Sackler collections.


Why is the Smithsonian Covered in Yarn?!

Scenes from last night's yarn bomb.

Scenes from last night’s yarn bomb.

If you pass by the Smithsonian Castle today or over the weekend, you may be surprised to see its gates and gardens wrapped up in red yarn. Why would the Freer|Sackler do such a thing? Read on to find out!

What are you doing?
We’re yarn bombing!

Yarn bombing involves covering the surface of large objects with knitted material—in this case, six miles of bright-red yarn. The yarn was knit in separate pieces, and then attached and connected to the gates, benches, lampposts, and other parts of the Enid A. Haupt Garden.

Why?
Opening this weekend in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is an installation by contemporary Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota, whose art uses everyday objects such as yarn, shoes, and keys to create room-filling works that have deep personal meaning. In her installation, called Over the Continents, she used 350 donated shoes and 4 miles of the same shade of red yarn used in the yarn bomb. Part of the Freer|Sackler’s Perspectives series of contemporary art, Shiota’s work will be on view for the next year. The yarn bomb, unfortunately, can only stay up through Labor Day.

How is the yarn bomb related to the exhibition?
Yarn is one of Shiota’s signature materials—it’s lightweight, flexible, and familiar—and she uses massive amounts to create something greater than its original form. As Shiota herself explained, “The threads are woven together. They become entangled. They tear. They unravel. They are a mirror of the emotions.” Red yarn, in particular, symbolizes the human body and states of being.

There’s also an element of community in Shiota’s pieces. She crowdsources many of the components, and she appreciates how people can come together for an artistic experience. For example, many visitors dropped by to watch her work during the public installation of Over the Continents on August 18–21. Similarly, the yarn bomb was created by many volunteers. It’s a fun way to alert people outside that there are dynamic things going on inside the Freer|Sackler.

In addition, the view of the gates and the castle is among the most iconic at the Smithsonian—and it happens to be right in front of the Sackler’s entrance.

Who is doing this?
The marketing staff at the Freer|Sackler started the yarn bomb, but once word got out, the project quickly grew to include more than 120 volunteers from around the Smithsonian and the DC area. People knit, helped to string up and attach the works, and spread the word among their friends and networks.

When was it done?
The yarn bomb was installed the evening of August 28 and revealed early in the morning on August 29, the day before Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota officially opened to the public. We had been knitting for about two weeks to create all of the pieces.

Are you making fun of the artist?
No, we certainly aren’t! We were inspired by Shiota’s use of simple, everyday materials, her involvement of community in her projects, and the vibrancy of her choice of color. The yarn bomb is a way to honor that outside the museums and to inject a little bit of the unexpected into everyone’s Friday commute or weekend visit to the Galleries.

What was the hardest part of the project?
The trickiest aspect was planning it. After we figured out what could be covered (benches, poles, fences) and what couldn’t (trees, flowerpots), we mapped out the surfaces and lengths of yarn we needed, working backward to convert it to lengths and then to skeins of yarn. It was comparatively easy to find the right shade of yarn, and easiest of all to learn to knit (which many of us did just for this project)!

What will you do with the yarn once it’s taken down?
We’re not sure yet! We hope to put the yarn to good use (it’s covered with a substance to make it fire resistant, so that presents some limitations). We’d love to hear suggestions, which you can tweet to @FreerSackler (hashtag: #perspectives) or post on our Facebook page.


Larger Than Life: Restoring the Empress Dowager

The painting of the Empress Dowager, before, during, and after conservation.

The painting of the Empress Dowager, before, during, and after conservation.

David Hogge is head of Archives at the Freer|Sackler.

In 2011, the Sackler acquired a life-size portrait of China’s Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) painted by Katharine Augusta Carl in 1904. That year, the painting was one of the Chinese government’s entries at the St. Louis Exposition. Then, it was given to President Roosevelt, who had it added to the Smithsonian’s collections. The painting was shown in the Smithsonian’s Art and Industries Building before being loaned to a museum in Taiwan in the 1960s, where it remained for more than forty years.

Though it was halfway around the world, the painting presented a perfect companion to the original Empress Dowager photographs in the Freer|Sackler Archives that were featured in the exhibition Power|Play: China’s Empress Dowager. I suggested that we should have the painting returned to the Smithsonian and continue to tell the tale of international diplomacy through portraiture. Bringing it back was a big risk: we learned that it was badly deteriorated, and the elaborately carved, half-ton frame was in equally poor shape. Nevertheless, the painting was shipped to Washington, DC, and sent to our storage facility in Suitland, Maryland. When we unwrapped the painting, our worst fears were realized: the canvas was in dreadful condition with tears, cracks, peeling, and layers of grime and discolored varnish.

The Empress Dowager, larger than life.

The restored painting of the Empress Dowager, with MCI conservators Jia-sun Tsang and Inês Madruga.

Since hiring an outside conservator would have been prohibitively expensive, at the time I assumed that we would have to box up the painting and put it away for good. Fortunately, Suitland is also the location of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI). Senior Painting Conservator Jia-sun Tsang was brought in to evaluate the painting. Rather than walk away in despair, she immediately saw the painting’s potential as well as its historical importance. Miraculously, Jia-sun requested and was granted the time and resources necessary to rescue the painting. While she and conservation fellow Inês Madruga oversaw a raft of analyses and treatments, Senior Furniture Conservator Donald Williams managed the repair of the frame. Overall, some twenty-three conservators, interns, art handlers, technicians, and contractors quietly labored away to restore the empress’s portrait. Last month, the painting and its frame were united once more. Thanks to these heroic efforts, in time, we hope to share this historic artifact with the public.

View a slideshow of the conservation process. Learn more about this and other images of the Empress Dowager and their role in rehabilitating her international reputation.


Remembering Collector Robert H. Ellsworth

Nandi; India, Chola dynasty, 12th century; bronze; Purchase, F1985.30

Nandi; India, Chola dynasty, 12th century; bronze; Purchase, F1985.30

Former head of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at Freer|Sackler, Paul Jett was with the museums for nearly thirty years.

Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, a preeminent collector and dealer of Asian art, passed away on August 3 at the age of eighty-five. Long a friend and benefactor of the Freer|Sackler, Mr. Ellsworth gave his collection of Chinese calligraphy to the museums and also supported many of their fundraising efforts. In addition, he was the source for a number of important works purchased by the museums, such as the beautiful bronze figure of Nandi pictured above. Mr. Ellsworth said he found this work being used as decoration near a swimming pool at the home of the owners of the Tandy Leather Company in Texas. (In the Freer|Sackler, the piece earned the nickname “The Tandy Nandi.”)

When I met Mr. Ellsworth, I was a young conservator studying a particular type of Chinese Buddhist bronze from Yunnan, one example of which was in his collection. I was certainly not known in the field of Asian art, and yet Mr. Ellsworth treated me with a gracious, generous cordiality that overwhelmed me. He allowed me to visit his home and study the bronze, and then went on to show me dozens of other bronzes from his collection. It was breathtaking and the first of many visits I made to see his collection and talk about art. A raconteur of the first order, Mr. Ellsworth always had a story to tell, about his collection, his life, or the people he knew. He could be incredibly charming, funny, and welcoming.

For years after my first visit, whenever Mr. Ellsworth saw an article or news about Yunnanese Buddhist bronzes, he would send me copies of the information. I was stunned once to learn that Mr. Ellsworth had bought one of these bronzes for about five times more than anyone had previously paid, but it took him just a month or two to sell it for a significant profit. Mr. Ellsworth not only knew the art market well, but he also seemed able to forecast it. Knowing the art market is one thing; knowing art is something else. I have always believed that, in his prime, Mr. Ellsworth had an eye for art that was better than that of anyone else in the field I ever met.

The museums have lost a good friend, and there are many more who will mourn and miss Robert Ellsworth.


Journey to the West: A 400-Year-Old Tale

"Journey to the West"

Scene from “Journey to the West”

Molly Thanrongvoraporn recently interned in the Department of Public Affairs and Marketing at Freer|Sackler.

There will always be a special place in my heart for Journey to the West. It’s a magical tale that has captivated both children and adults for centuries. Growing up in a half-Thai, half-Chinese household, I couldn’t escape its spell. How could anyone resist the fantastic journey to India undertaken by a Buddhist monk, an invincible magic monkey, a gluttonous pig monster, a humble fish monster, and a quiet dragon-in-disguise horse? Oh, the good old Saturday mornings of sitting around the table watching the Monkey King defeat demons. It makes me nostalgic!

Journey to the West (aka Journey) is one of those stories that brings together East Asian people of all ages, especially when you’re partly Chinese. My grandmother and I are able to discuss the same story even though we were born fifty years apart. As one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, Journey was adapted into many forms, ranging from Beijing opera to animation spin-offs. My earliest memory of it is the 1988 film Doraemon: The Record of Nobita’s Parallel Visit to the West. As I was growing up, television series, cartoons, and movies telling this tale were released every few years to people who knew the story by heart. Regardless, we all rejoiced with every new version we could find.

The one element of the novel that appears most frequently in popular culture is the Monkey King, Sun Wukong. Many actors have tried their hand at portraying the character. Just this year, Donnie Yen starred in The Monkey King, a new adaptation made with a big budget and plenty of special effects. Although the entire story is loosely based on Journey, Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball protagonist Son Goku is heavily influenced by Wukong. Goku has the same name (but in Japanese), rides on a cloud, carries a magic staff, and had a monkey tail as a kid.

My favorite Wukong is the one and only Hong Kong comedy king, Stephen Chow, who created a bombastically funny version in Jeffrey Lau’s A Chinese Odyssey series. Focusing on how one may suffer with love and lust, the loose adaptation traces Wukong’s journey of self-redemption from an arrogant lying individual to a faithful follower of the Longevity Monk. Chow’s Wukong has set a high standard for any future adapters of the tale.

Catch Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons on Friday, August 15, at 7 pm, and A Chinese Odyssey Parts I and II at 1 and 3 pm on Sunday, August 17, at the Freer. These films conclude the 19th Annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, cosponsored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, Washington, DC.

Read Molly’s previous post on Hong Kong films.