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Slow Down for Art!

Up Close and Slow: Taking a good look at a work of art at Freer|Sackler.

Visitors take a good look at a work of art at Freer|Sackler (photo by Cory Grace).

Hillary Rothberg is an educator at Freer|Sackler.

It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. —Henry David Thoreau

The above quote is this year’s motto for Slow Art Day—and how true it is. While we may all look at an object together, what we see as individuals varies widely. And it is that subjectivity that makes art such a powerful tool. Some see the intricacy of design and technique in a piece of art; others see the emotion and poignancy in the story told by that piece. By slowing down and really taking time to view a work, we can deliberate on art in a meditative style, exploring its depth and meaning, and can understand better its craftsmanship.

On Saturday, April 27, the Freer and Sackler Galleries will take part in the rapidly growing Slow Art Day movement. We, along with more than 250 other art venues across the globe, will lead a group in looking at art objects. Then, we will discuss what we’ve discovered over lunch. It’s an opportunity to see and think deeply, and to share with each other the meaning of art in our lives.

Want to learn more about Slow Art Day? Check out this interview with founder Phil Terry on the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s blog, Eye Level.

Posted by in A Closer Look | 2 Comments

Nomads and Networks: Archaeologists Between Digs

Rebecca Beardmore taking phytolith soil samples at Tuzusai in 2011, photo by Perry A. Tourtellotte

Rebecca Beardmore taking phytolith soil samples at Tuzusai in 2011, photo by Perry A. Tourtellotte

Claudia Chang, professor of archaeology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, is director of an international field research project on the archaeology of the Iron Age in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Claudia blogged for Bento from Kazakhstan during the exhibition Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan at the Sackler last fall.

My friends and even a former professor used to joke that archaeologists have a kind of schizophrenic life. We have lovely summers working in the field, doing surveys and excavations. During the winter months, we find ourselves in the laboratory, counting sherds, transposing field notes, and waiting for all the specialists’ reports to be completed, from the radiometric dates of ancient hearths to the metallurgical studies of ancient bronzes. In fact, this charmed existence of field archaeology usually means that you pay for all those good times in the field; for every week of fieldwork you need about three times that for laboratory cataloging, cleaning and processing artifacts, counting, creating statistics and spreadsheets, writing up reports, and interpreting the data. Most of us have learned to make our “deal with the devil.” Since January 1, 2013, I have been holed up in my attic office in Virginia, overlooking the foothills of the Blue Ridge, surrounded by books, papers, and articles, writing the early chapters of a book on Iron Age research on the Talgar fan

The view out my window is lovely this afternoon, as the sun sets on Paul’s Mountain. I am surrounded by books that range from the philosophy of science to Bronze Age Eurasia. Right now it seems impossible to condense 18 years of fieldwork, let alone the past five months of research on the Talgar fan, into any kind of readable narrative, either for an academic audience or myself.

Recently, Rebecca Beardmore, a PhD student in archaeology at University College, London, called me by Skype from Birmingham, England, where she had just finished graphing all the phytolith counts she made during the 2011 field season at Tuzusai, our Iron Age settlement site. Phytoliths, or plant stones, are the silicate cells of ancient plant remains that can be trapped in archaeological soils, such as ancient mudbricks. Rebecca’s analysis, conducted with a scanning electron microscope, has shown that the reddish-yellow and yellow mudbrick samples have lower densities of ancient plant materials than the brown-red and greenish mudbricks. All four samples of mudbrick seem to have some remnants of wheat plants, as well as wild grass parts, both husks and leaves. This means that the Iron Age builders at Tuzusai probably dumped a bunch of plant material into pits where they mixed the mudbricks, which then formed the walls, floors, and ramps of the adobe architecture we have discovered. But why do some bricks have higher densities of plant material than others?

That question sent me back to my field notes from 2011, which include chicken-scratch drawings of the red-brown and green mudbricks. Those mudbricks appear on my sketches to be large wall or foundation features, while the yellow or reddish-yellow ones are usually the tops of the platform or just beneath the plastered floors. Could it be that the ancient inhabitants of Tuzusai put more straw and debris into the foundation walls and less in the floor bricks? I told Rebecca that she should rename her thesis, “The Unseen Archaeological Record.” She says maybe she’ll title the thesis, “Down and Dirty, Mudbrick and Animal Dung.” Good thing I have those sketches of mudbricks in my notebook.

After we left Tuzusai last fall, the archaeological facts come now from the laboratory, the field notebooks, and an occasional inspiration I might have while staring out the window at the mocking bird perched on the crab apple tree. Central Virginia and the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains seem faraway from the Tian Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan, but lest I forget, a large map of the Upper Asi Valley is pinned to the wall by my desk.

Posted by in Ancient Near East, Exhibitions | No Comments

Hiaaaaa! Drumroll, Please!

Women drummers in traditional kimono peforming on the steps of the Freer Gallery.

Taiko drummers in traditional kimono performing on the steps of the Freer Gallery (photos by John Tsantes).

In honor of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, nearly forty drummers and dancers from Tamagawa University in Tokyo, performed on the steps of the Freer Gallery to an audience of hundreds. The group is led and choreographed by Kabuki dance master Isaburoh Hanayagi, who began his career at the age of three under the tutelage of his father, Yoshigosaburoh Hanayagi.

What started out as a dreary, rainy day, gave way to a bright and sunny sky, perfect for watching—and hearing—the percussive sounds of the performers. I think the powerful combination of drumming and dancing drove the clouds away.

Taiko drummers on the steps of the Freer Gallery.

Not to be outdone by the women, the men pound out traditional Japanese rhythms.

If you missed the performers today, catch them tomorrow at the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade. For more Freer|Sackler Cherry Blossom related programs, see our calendar of events.

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Posted by in Cherry Blossom Festival | No Comments

Weeping Cherry

A weeping cherry tree in full bloom in the Sackler's Moongate garden.

A weeping cherry tree in full bloom in the Sackler’s Moongate garden.

Cory Grace is Digital Imaging & Asset Specialist at Freer|Sackler.

The other morning, when on assignment in the Sackler pavilion, I caught a glimpse of a weeping cherry tree in the Moongate Garden in the camera’s viewfinder and knew I had to go outside and take a photograph. The cherry trees are in full bloom, and the city is full of visitors heading to the tidal basin for a look. But how many people know about this one? I grabbed the camera and went outside. A female mallard swam in the pool, and a couple of tourists meandered through the garden as I captured the most graceful and naturally beautiful tree in the city.

Posted by in A Closer Look | No Comments

The Art of the Book

Case Study: Japanese books from the Gerhard Pulverer Collection

Case study: Japanese books from the Gerhard Pulverer collection

On Saturday, April 6, Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books opens in the Sackler. In honor of the exhibition, we’re hosting a weekend celebrating Japanese arts and design. Check our calendar to learn more about the events that include tours, talks, hands-on activities, and music.

Posted by in Exhibitions, Family Day, Japanese Art | No Comments

Celebrating Nowruz in Cities Ancient and Modern

Persepolis, entrance to the citadel with the Gate of All Nations, photo Alex Nagel

Persepolis, entrance to the citadel with the Gate of All Nations, photo by Alex Nagel

Alex Nagel, assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art at Freer|Sackler, is the in-house cocurator of the exhibition The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning, on view at the Sackler through April 28, 2013.

Nowruz Mobarak! Recently, many countries around the world celebrated Nowruz, the Persian New Year. At Freer|Sackler, thousands of visitors of all ages engaged in activities that included music, storytelling, hands-on activities, “fire-jumping,” and games. I had a wonderful time helping the chess and backgammon players, working with local experts and communities, and telling people about the ancient roots of these popular games. But how was Nowruz celebrated in the ancient world, with its multiple religions, festivals, and languages?

Since the nineteenth century, archaeologists have excavated cuneiform tablets that refer to a New Year’s festival in Babylon, including a 2,000-year-old tablet that describes the Akitu. Held at the end of March, this celebration lasted for many days and honored Marduk, Babylon’s main deity. It began in the old Esagila sanctuary in the city center of Babylon, which had one of the oldest ziggurats (temple or pyramid-like structures), the foundations of which are preserved and known as “The Tower of Babel.”

On this particular Akitu-tablet, in the collections of the Louvre, the writer praises Marduk as lord (“Bel”) and his wife Zarpanitu as “Beltia.” During the festival, the king of Babylon would lead a procession with a statue of Marduk to the river Euphrates, where the citizens of Babylon would watch as the statue was transported by boat to the Akitu Temple in the north. On the final day of the festivities, citizens brought offerings and tributes to Marduk, which became a source of wealth for the Esagila sanctuary.

Unfortunately, there’s much less written evidence for the New Year’s festivities in places like Persepolis and Susa. Some scholars have argued that there is a special significance in the bull and lion scenes found carved on the walls of the Apadana, one of the many buildings still preserved at Persepolis. Thousands of tablets excavated at Persepolis provide important information about high numbers of livestock used for cult purposes that we are only beginning to understand. And, what about jumping through fire? While it is not mentioned in the tablets, we know that the tradition of fire jumping began with people aiming to ward off evil spirits. As shown by the number of enthusiastic jumpers at the Freer|Sackler Nowruz celebrations, it is still a good way to start the New Year.

Posted by in Nowruz | 1 Comment

Inspired by Storytelling

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi; Rustam rescues Bijan from the pit circa 1590-1600; S1986.267

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi; Rustam rescues Bijan from the pit
circa 1590-1600; S1986.267

David Nash is program assistant in the education department of Freer|Sackler.

While we were setting up for the Shahnama storytelling performances at this year’s Nowruz celebration, a little girl named Sophia and her father arrived an hour early for the first show. As they waited, Sophia explained that she did not want to take any chances on not getting in. Sophia is nine years old and had seen the performer, Xanthe Gresham, at previous Nowruz celebrations. Her father told us that as soon as she found out that Xanthe would be performing again this year, she made him promise to take her.

As they waited outside of the theater, Sophia asked us if Xanthe would be telling Rustam stories again. We assured her that Rustam would definitely be included. We also reminded her that Xanthe asks for volunteers from the audience to perform on stage with her and suggested that Sophia sit up close so that she might be selected. She sat as close as possible and, indeed, was the very first audience member to be chosen to come to the stage and help with the story. Sophia’s face lit up as a costume was placed over her shoulders, and she performed with the enthusiasm of a great actor.

When the show was over, Sophia and her father approached Xanthe and politely thanked her for the wonderful story. Then, Sophia added, “I’ll see you at 2:30,” the time of the next show. As they left the theater I overheard the father ask, “What would you like to do next?” Sophia replied, “Let’s go play chess. But we have to be back in time for the next show.” And, of course, they did show up for the next performance, as well as for the last performance of the day. Each time Sophia was asked to play a role in the story and each time her smile beamed. After the final performance, she told Xanthe, “I’m going to be a storyteller like you.” Then she announced, “I can’t wait until next year!”

An estimated 750 visitors came through the doors of the theater to attend Xanthe’s performances in honor of Nowruz (with nearly 10,000 visiting the museums on Saturday, March 16), and enjoyed the stories tremendously. None, however, as much as Sophia … Xanthe Gresham’s biggest fan.

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Posted by in Nowruz | No Comments