Category Archives: A Closer Look

The Mystery of the Rosewater Sprinkler

Rosewater sprinkler, Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, Freer Gallery of Art, F1990.1

Little did I know that my first intern assignment at the Freer|Sackler this summer would be worthy of a detective novel. Researching an Indian rosewater sprinkler took me down a few surprising paths and underscored the importance of careful visual analysis.

Perfumes have long been popular in India, and sprinklers containing perfumed water were an important part of courtly ritual. A silver rosewater sprinkler in the Freer Gallery of Art’s collection was originally attributed to an imperial Mughal workshop, circa 1700. But Dr. Debra Diamond, curator of South and Southeast Asian art, believed that the flower motifs displayed on the sprinkler were not consistent with those that adorn Mughal works. She had a hunch that the sprinkler might be from Lucknow—a city in northern India—and produced for the Awadhi court. So, she put me on the case.

A detail of the five-petaled pendant flower that adorns the front and back of the Freer rosewater sprinkler.

To begin, I looked at pictures of colonial era Lucknow to see if floral decoration on buildings throughout the city matched the sprinkler. I soon realized that I was approaching the project incorrectly. Looking at photos of Lucknow from the nineteenth century was not enough. Without any understanding of the history of the city and its rulers, I had no idea how to situate the floral motifs from the sprinkler within Lucknow’s chronology or gauge their importance.

I started to research the Awadhi court so I could construct a timeline of important events. This new direction of inquiry proved far more fruitful. In 1722, the Mughal rulers of India appointed a new governor for the state of Awadh (located in the modern state of Uttar Pradesh). The new governor moved the state’s capital from Lucknow to Faizabad. Over the next few decades, as the power of the Mughal Empire waned, the rulers of Awadh affirmed their own sovereignty and assumed complete control of the state. In1775 a young ambitious ruler, Asaf al-Daula, came to power and returned the Awadh capital to Lucknow. This move launched a flourishing period of art and culture in the region, which lasted until al-Daula’s death in 1797.

A detail of the flowers that adorn the main arch of the Turkish Gate, built in 1784. Note the stylistic similarities and differences between this motif and the one on the rosewater sprinkler.

This information was vital to my investigation. Because al-Daula sponsored high levels of artistic and architectural production, I began to look at the building projects he commissioned in Lucknow. I discovered that the five-petaled pendant flower at the center of the Freer|Sackler’s sprinkler is stylistically similar to flowers that adorn exteriors and interiors of religious and secular buildings throughout Lucknow.

The motif, which occurs in both five- and seven-petaled variations, is most commonly found at the apex of archways above doorways and windows. Prominent examples of the motif can be found at the Bara Imambara complex, which includes the Turkish Gate and the Asfi Mosque. The construction of these buildings began in 1784. While none of the flowers represented in these architectural settings is identical to the one on the sprinkler, the motif seems to have provided opportunity for artistic innovation and variation; for example, each flower motif that appears above the arches on the Turkish Gate varies slightly from its neighbor.

Extending my investigation beyond the flowers, I discovered that the sprinkler’s neck distinctly resembles certain columns found on Lucknow buildings from the late eighteenth century. Like the sprinkler’s spout, these columns are fluted and ribbed. And acanthus leaves typically embellish the columns’ capital and base in the same manner as on the sprinkler.

Columns of the Bara Imambara complex in Lucknow, India, built in 1784.

During my research, I drew heavily on the scholarship of Stephen Markel, senior research curator for South and Southeast Asian art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In his exhibition catalogue India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow, Markel observes that al-Daula’s patronage catalyzed the development of the “mature Lucknow style,” which he describes as predominantly ornamented with stylized flowers bursting into bloom and flowering branches with perching birds. By comparing the luxury objects featured in Markel’s catalogue with the Freer rosewater sprinkler, I realized that the similarities were too striking to be coincidence—the sprinkler undoubtedly belongs to the mature Lucknow style. This information led me to conclude that the sprinkler was produced in Lucknow, probably between 1775 and 1800. Dr. Diamond was correct!

Columns of the Bara Imambara complex in Lucknow, India, built in 1784.

This project was a highly valuable experience as it helped me sharpen and improve my visual analysis skills. Careful examination of hundreds of images of Lucknow’s architecture and luxury goods enabled me to recognize subtle stylistic differences that I may have overlooked previously. I also gained insight into the type of in-depth research required for attributing, dating, and subsequently labeling an object in a collection—skills I will carry forward in future art historical work.

Come check out the rosewater sprinkler on October 14, when the Freer|Sackler reopens to the public. You can find it in Freer gallery 1, where you’ll see my research embedded into the tombstone for the object!

A Closer Look: Monkeys Grasp for the Moon

Artist Xu Bing

The first installation I saw when I stepped through the doors of the Freer|Sackler to start my summer internship was Xu Bing’s Monkeys Grasp for the Moon. The piece is both daunting and intriguing, drawing visitors in for a closer look.

Artist Xu Bing


As someone who loves stories, I was fascinated by the idea behind the artwork. The sculpture is based on a Chinese folktale of monkeys who try to capture the moon. Linking arms and tails, they form a chain reaching down from the branch of a tree to the moon, only to discover that it is a shimmering reflection on the surface of a pool beneath them.

At first the sculpture appears to be a chain of black lines and shapes, but there is more than originally meets the eye. Monkeys Grasp for the Moon is an installation of word shapes. Twenty-one laminated wood pieces represent the word “monkey” in twenty-one languages and writing systems, including English, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Braille.


Artist Xu Bing

The words themselves also resemble monkeys, stretched at beginning and end to form long tails and arms. They link together in a large chain that extends down three levels. Perhaps this is why I like the piece so much: wherever you are in the Sackler, you’re never far from the sculpture. It serves as a constant reminder of the way in which art can be displayed effectively in an unusual space.

Artist Xu Bing

I got to know the piece in an even more personal way when I helped create an Instagram story that revolved around Monkeys Grasp for the Moon. This involved planning out a storyboard to decide what text and images would be shown, getting our ideas approved, and then going out into the museum to shoot the sculpture. Getting up close meant I really got to look at the sculpture, picking out the different languages I knew and reading about those that I didn’t.

Artist Xu Bing

The installation will be on permanent display once the Freer|Sackler reopens this fall. Join us on reopening weekend, which kicks off at 5 pm on Saturday, October 14, to visit Monkeys and marvel at its spellbinding design.

A glimpse of an archaeological excavation in Iraq-Kurdistan

This year, my team and I, the Qara Dagh Regional Archaeological project (QDRAP), has begun the excavation of a Late Chalcolithic 3-5 (3900/3850-3100 B.C.) site in the Qara Dagh Valley, in Iraqi-Kurdistan. In 2015, the QDRAP performed an archaeological survey in Qara Dagh, during which approximately 20 sites were identified. The overall aim of our project is to investigate and document the valley’s history and its archaeological relevance by performing surveys and excavations in the area. Ban Qala, one of the most archaeologically promising sites identified during last year’s survey, was chosen for excavation because of the high content of material culture, in the form of sherds (pieces of ceramic), available on the surface. Ban Qala is manly a Late Chalcolithic mound (also called gird or tell).

The step trench that is being excavated this season will help us reconstruct the chronology of the site and enable us to plan future research.

The prime investigators that comprise our team this season are Terri Tanaka from University of California Berkeley and myself. In addition, two archaeologists from the Antiquities Directorate of Sulaymanyah make up the rest our team.

The preparation for a research season requires much preparation and thought. In particular, the logistics have to be worked out in close collaboration with the Antiquities Department of Iraqi-Kurdistan. More specifically, I work with the Antiquities Department of Sulaymanyah, whose director is Kak (Mr.) Kamal Rasheed Raheem.

My contacts with the director begin months before the beginning of the season because he is the foremost source of information and support for all the teams that work in the Sulaymanyah region. He is well informed on all matters concerning excavations and research and is always available to insure that each team has a trouble-free season. Kak Kamal provides all the paperwork necessary to present to local authorities and to travel through the different areas of the country.

In addition, the Antiquities Department helps the teams that work in this area to find lodgings for the mission, a means of transportation, tools needed on the site and, most importantly, facilitates communication with the locals at the site.

This year, the two representatives from the Antiquities Department that have joined us are Kak Amanj and Kak Rebin. They both have experience in archeological digs and their help is extremely valuable for the smooth running of the season. Their love for archaeology and their country’s history is clearly visible in the enthusiasm with which they tackle their work every day.

When I asked Kak Amanj what archaeology means to him, he answered: “It is my dream, my responsibility; it is my job.” Kak Amanj collaborates throughout the year with several international archaeological teams. He began his career in archaeology in 2005. In 2009 he received his BA from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Salahadin in Erbil and since 2012 he works for the Antiquities Directorate in Sulaymanyah.

Kak Rebin, who also studied archaeology at the University of Erbil, has worked with many archaeological teams and has acquired much experience digging. For him, archaeology is an essential part of his life, or as he put it: “like water.”

When I arrived in Sulaymanyah at the end of June, the director, Kak Kamal, and the representatives, Kak Amanj and Kak Rebin, were ready to provide the support needed with the logistics. As always, they were very welcoming, and, already on the first day, I was able to rent a car. This year, our driver is Kak Aziz, who has become an indispensable member of our mission. The day following my arrival, we embarked on a hunt for a house or apartment in Qara Dagh. Ideally, the house needed to be close to the site of Ban Qala. Unfortunately, the search did not go well as the houses found needed much repair, and did not have stable electricity or water. I opted to stay in an apartment in the city of Sulaymanyah, in spite of the fact that this would require a 40-minute daily drive to the site.

On the third day, Kak Amanj and Kak Aziz, accompanied me to the local bazaar where I could acquire tools needed for the mission in the many specialized stores that can be found this typical marketplace.

Walking through the bazaar is an interesting experience; the many alleys that form the bazaar tend to intimidate those who do not know how to navigate them.

While going through the bazaar, for example, I lost track of the course that we had followed to get to the hardware section and, had I not been accompanied, would have had a difficult time trying to find it. Now, after several days spent exploring this fascinating “shopping center,” I have become acquainted with the different sections and regularly visit the fruit and vegetable section to buy the daily items needed for cooking. For the people of Sulaymanyah, the bazaar is very important. It is alive with merchants hawking their wares and customers bargaining prices. As Kak Amanj happily exclaimed after we had bought what we needed: “The Sulaymanyah bazaar is great because you can find everything you need.”

The preparation for the beginning of the excavation took roughly one week. On the first day of the actual dig, Terri, Kak Amanj, Kak Rebin, Kak Aziz and I started our workday by leaving the house at 4 am to go to the archaeological site of Ban Qala.

Leaving early allows us to avoid the intense heat (45 degrees Centigrade\ 113 Fahrenheit or more) that comes later in the day. For the same reason, we must end our fieldwork around midday. On the field, we take short breaks, starting with breakfast at 8:30.

Breakfast for the locals of Kurdistan is generally a simple meal. Ours consists of tomatoes from Aziz’s garden, cucumbers, onions, bread, and fruit bought at the bazaar and the sweet tea for which the Middle East is famous. Kak Aziz prepares a very savory tea. As it turns out, his secret is to mix different types of teas. This practice, as I came to learn, is common in this area. The infusion of different types of tea to achieve the intensity and flavor desired makes the experience of drinking tea unique because the taste will depend on the expertise of whom prepares it.

Our mornings are always busy. Opening the step trench is heavy work and the heat sometimes slows down the shoveling, picking and sifting of the material recovered.

To provide some shade from the sun, we have installed a tent that covers the excavation area. Even so, it is impossible to spend too much time exposed to the heat and we try to protect ourselves as much as we can.

In spite of the heat, Kak Amanj, Kak Aziz and Kak Rebin are always in a good mood and chat about different things as we work. They speak Sorani and, although Terri and I are still learning the language, we can understand some parts and others are translated for us. Listening to them and laughing with them makes our workday much more pleasant and distracts us from the heat and fatigue.

Around noon, as we leave Ban Qala, we are tired but have a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

As we travel and leave behind the beautiful landscape of the valley, we encounter Kak Salam, the guard for the site whose job is to keep an eye on the excavation so that it is not damaged or disturbed. His son sleeps overnight in a little house that they built in only a few hours at the beginning of the dig.

They perform an important duty, as goats, cows and sheep that pasture on the land near the excavation often “visit” the site. This area is the animals’ home but, because of the importance of our study, we have to prevent their presence on the mound.

When Terri and I arrive at the apartment in the afternoon, there is still much work to do. After spending our mornings excavating, we spend our afternoons processing our findings and organizing our excavation logs. Most of the time is spent washing pottery and stone tools covered with dirt and it is during this time that we are filled with excitement as we find painted pottery, scrapers made of colorful stones and other items.

Finally, after washing and processing documents, we head towards the bazaar, mainly to buy fruit, bread and vegetables. The bazaar is always busy and, as we make our way through the tight alleys and streets, there is always something different and interesting to observe. In the few days that we have been here, we have already established our favorite fruit vendors and bread shops. Sometimes, when the day has been particularly tiring, we decide to splurge and have dinner out, mostly trying some of the local food. The street food is particularly delicious!

Nighttime finds us getting ready for bed and, unwinding from the day’s stress, we begin to laugh as we talk about the funny aspects of our daily life here. Terri, for example, noticed one evening when she pulled up her sleeve that the contrast in color between her hand and her arm was extreme and, for some reason, this struck us as quite hilarious. We could not stop laughing! Another time, we forgot our canteens for the cold water in the freezer and the next day we found them broken, with icicles protruding from the openings. When we finally turn the lights out, we are so tired that we literally drop on our beds and are dead to the world until the alarm clock rings again at three in the morning!

The 2017 excavation season of Ban Qala was generously supported by donations through the Rust Family Foundation.

Pic of the Week: Docents at Work, Kids at Play

FS Docent tour with third graders from Inspired Teaching

FS Docent tour with third graders from Inspired Teaching


We recently hosted third graders from DC school Inspired Learning. Led by our wonderful Docents, these young ones toured the Sackler. We can’t begin to express how thankful we are for our docents. If you’re interested in joining the Docent team, fill out the form here.

Chinese New Year: Painted Clay Sculptures Celebrate Beijing Opera Characters


Meet Hongkui Lin, a craftsman of painted clay opera masks. On Sunday, February 5, watch him demonstrate his more than one-hundred-year-old craft at our third annual Chinese New Year Celebration. Lin is visiting from Beijing, and his demonstration will be a rare opportunity for Americans to experience this popular Chinese craft.

As this video shows, the process for making the clay masks is more complex than it might seem at first glance. Like a complicated recipe, one mask takes a minimum of sixteen steps, from carving models on paper to applying base paint and adding enamel.

Lin selects colors to reflect aspects of each character’s identity and personality. Red often represents loyalty, for instance, while black symbolizes integrity. Colors also may signify age. Pink is reserved for elders, and if your character is immortal, it most likely will bear silver or gold.

After watching Lin’s demonstration, you may be inspired to watch thirty-minute opera performances by students from the Beijing Opera Art’s College at 12:30 and 2:30 pm. Or, you may be tempted to make your own opera mask in the museum’s ImaginAsia classroom.

Seating will be first come, first served, and all activities are free and open to the public. For more information (and to invite your friends), check out the event listing on Facebook.

A Journey into Whistler’s Drawings

Entré sur la Grande Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Entré sur la Grande Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

More than 150 years ago, a twenty-four-year-old James McNeill Whistler set off on a summertime journey. He and his friend Ernest Delannoy—both young, aspiring artists—embarked on a road trip through the French and German countryside. Their goal was to visit Amsterdam and pay homage to the revered Dutch painter and etcher Rembrandt van Rijn.

Whistler and Delannoy never made it to Amsterdam; they ran out of money and were forced to return to Paris. But the sojourn gave Whistler an opportunity to observe new scenery and subjects and to develop his artistic style. Throughout the trip, the artist kept a notebook, a visual diary of sorts, which he filled with pencil sketches detailing scenes, people, and places along the way. He produced scores of drawings, some of which he later developed as etchings for his so-called French Set.

This summer, I too traveled in pursuit of art. My journey took me from Colby College in Maine to Washington, DC, for an internship at the Freer|Sackler. When I arrived in June, just a few weeks after graduating with a degree in art history, I began surveying the collection of Whistler’s drawings in media other than watercolor and pastel. The majority of the drawings I looked at were from Whistler’s 1858 trip.

I had extensive background knowledge from my previous experience studying Whistler’s work at the Colby College Museum of Art, a fellow member of the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies. This project, however, gave me the new opportunity of handling the works. Emily Jacobson, the museum’s paper conservator, showed me how to handle the art. She then let me work on my own with a headband magnifier and flashlight to conduct what was essentially a forensic examination of each sheet.

Examining Whistler's drawings

Examining Whistler’s drawings

We were trying to determine if Whistler favored particular types of paper for a given medium or if he mixed it up, using, for instance, watercolor blocks for pencil drawings. As I examined each drawing, I paid particular attention to the paper, noting its texture and whether it was “hot press” (run through hot rollers to make it super smooth), “cold press” (run through cold rollers, leaving little bumps and grooves); or “rough” (air-dried, leaving lots of texture). I checked for watermarks; measured the paper’s height, width, and thickness; and inspected the edges for remains of adhesive or fabric. Along the way, I noticed distinct similarities among the sketches, such as the thin, off-white woven paper, the graphite markings on the edges, and the occasional appearance of sewing holes—evidence that papers were ripped or cut out of a sketchbook.

One sketch in particular stood out to me: Promenade à Baden, which depicts a group of fashionable people standing near a portico facing a hill. The drawing is on two pieces of paper glued together side by side. The edges are uneven, and the two pieces do not properly align, making the bottom wider than the top. A vertical fold down the middle of the drawing contains three sewing holes, and like the other sketches from Whistler’s 1858 trip, Promenade à Baden has graphite markings on the edges.

Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Even though Whistler probably never meant it to be a finished work, Promenade à Baden fascinated me because it reveals some of the artist’s process. Not only does this sketch provide us with a snapshot of Whistler’s journey, but it also demonstrates how he experimented with cropping and cutting his drawings. The graphite along the edges was probably how he marked where the paper should be trimmed. Additional cut marks near the edges suggest that he considered cropping the drawing even more before ultimately deciding against it. One thin sheet of paper tells us a story of a young, broke artist who, to further his artistic development, drew on anything he could and made the most of each sheet of paper.

The Saddest Toad

Large Toad; artist: Obaku Tokuan (act. 1910–35); calligrapher: Ōbaku Chokuō 黄檗直翁 (1867–1937); Japan, Taisho era, 1919; hanging scroll, ink and color on paper; Purchase from the Estate of Robert O. Muller with funds from the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund, F2004.29

Large Toad; artist: Obaku Tokuan (act. 1910–35); calligrapher: Ōbaku Chokuō 黄檗直翁 (1867–1937); Japan, Taisho era, 1919; hanging scroll, ink and color on paper; Purchase from the Estate of Robert O. Muller with funds from the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund, F2004.29

In case you missed it, the Large Toad took the #MarchSadness crown. One of his many fans asked about the writing behind him. Thanks to our talented fellow Alessandro Bianchi, we now have a translation:


How uncanny! [A toad with such a] large belly


The universe [resides] in its stomach;


With every single breath [it takes]


All living beings respire.

The Freer is Closed, But the Shows Go On

The Freer Gallery of Art is closed through 2017—but the Sackler remains open and as dynamic as ever.

The Freer Gallery of Art is closed through 2017—but the Sackler remains open and as dynamic as ever.

It’s official: The Freer Gallery of Art has closed for renovation, a project that will extend into 2017. As our director, Julian Raby, told WAMU last week, the “basic bones” of our stunning Italian Renaissance-style building will remain the same, as will the collections. But, “there will be different ideas and different types of ideas in different galleries,” Raby reported, as well as more space, more narratives, and more interaction with you, our audience.

A few of you have weighed in on Facebook about what you’d like to see for the Freer’s future. We encourage you to continue sharing your thoughts there or in the comments below.

In the meantime, the Sackler remains open with a full lineup of exhibitions and events, both in the museum and around town. Our twentieth annual Iranian Film Festival, for example, is being copresented and screened at the National Gallery of Art and AFI Silver Theatre. Head to the Library of Congress for our offsite presentation of the Musicians from Marlboro, and use our Haupt Garden entrance to enjoy upcoming performances here at home.

We’ll keep you updated as the year goes on. Questions? Fire away, and we’ll do our best to answer.

A Year of Freer|Sackler

What captured you at the Freer|Sackler this year? It’s been a whirlwind 365 days packed with exhibitions and events—from Bada Shanren to Tawaraya Sōtatsu, film festivals to stirring musical performances, and the original Peacock Room to Peacock Room REMIX to Asia After Dark: PEACOCKalypse.

As we prepare for the future, take a look back at a few highlights. Thank you for a fantastic 2015, and see you next year!

Fish-Teeth and Friendship

Archer’s Ring; India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1610–20; walrus ivory; courtesy Benjamin Zucker; photo by Neil Greentree

Archer’s Ring; India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1610–20; walrus ivory; courtesy Benjamin Zucker; photo by Neil Greentree

A leading gem connoisseur and collector from a long history of jewelers, Benjamin Zucker joins us Sunday to recall his worldwide travels to acquire precious stones. Hear about the Taj Mahal emerald that inspired his novel Green and the fourth-century Roman diamond in Elihu Yale: Merchant, Collector, and Patron.

And then there’s the walrus ivory archer’s ring, on view December 11–18. It was made four hundred years ago, when Jahangir ruled India’s vast and wealthy Mughal empire. He was introduced to walrus ivory, called “fish-teeth” in Persian, by his ally Shah Abbas, ruler of Persia (present-day Iran). Delighted by the material, he sent agents to Persia to acquire more “fish-teeth … from wherever and whomever at any price.”

Detail, Emperor Jahangir Embracing Shah Abbas of Persia; folio from the St. Petersburg Album; signed by Abu’l Hasan (act. 1600–30); India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1618; opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on paper Freer Gallery of Art, Purchase, F1945.9

Detail, Emperor Jahangir Embracing Shah Abbas of Persia; folio from the St. Petersburg Album; signed by Abu’l Hasan (act. 1600–30); India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1618; opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, Purchase, F1945.9

Look closely at this painting, a vision from one of Jahangir’s dreams (click through to zoom in). He and Shah Abbas both wear rings designed to protect their thumbs during archery. (Jahangir’s ring also symbolizes friendship and brotherly affection.) The shah’s translucent ring is probably made of white jade; Jahangir’s is probably walrus ivory. Its brownish color makes it unlike any other archer’s ring we know today. We’re not sure whether the ring on display was made for Jahangir—but scientific tests have determined that it, too, was carved from walrus tusk.

See the ring and painting while they’re on view through December 18, and don’t miss Zucker’s talk on Sunday at 2 pm.


A Note on Walrus Ivory
Emperor Jahangir particularly desired “striated and mottled fish-teeth” from Siberia, which he described as beautiful. In the 1600s, people thought walrus tusks would reduce swelling and serve as an antidote to poison. Today, we focus on the long-term survival of the marine mammal. The US Fish and Wildlife Service may put the Pacific walrus on the endangered species list, and several states are considering banning the trade of walrus ivory.