Category Archives: Behind the Scenes

Photo Story: Freer Renovation

Freer Gallery of Art corridor under renovation 2017.

Photograph by Robb Harrell

A shot of an empty corridor in the Freer Gallery, which reopens this fall. Learn more about the renovation project that’s now underway.

ImaginAsia: The Lost Finger

Guardian figure; Japan, Kamakura period, 1185–1333; wood (Cryptomeria japonica); Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1949.20

Guardian figure; Japan, Kamakura period, 1185–1333; wood (Cryptomeria japonica); Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1949.20

All was still, absolutely still as the moon rose over the National Mall in Washington, DC. The visitors had left, and the Freer|Sackler was eerily quiet. A shaft of moonlight pierced the museum’s skylights and flooded over the Japanese guardian figures standing proudly in the hallway. Under the magic of the moon, the figures slowly came to life. Towering over mere mortals and rippling with muscles, the guardians were an intimidating sight. In their earlier history, the figures stood guard in front of a Buddhist temple, but that night they battled fierce demons to defend the art collections of the Freer|Sackler.

The next morning, one of our security officers noticed a finger belonging to the guardian figure pictured above resting on its pedestal. It must have been a fearsome fight . . .

Well, OK, that’s probably not exactly how it happened. The only thing we know for sure about that incident in April 2009 is that the security officer found the finger and called me, Ellen Chase, objects conservator. At the Freer|Sackler, we do have figures who fight to defend the collection—but we aren’t made of wood (and we have much smaller muscles). We work in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research.

The Freer|Sackler Objects Lab.

The Freer|Sackler Objects Lab.

Please Don’t Touch
When you go to museums, there often are a lot of “Please don’t touch” signs. But why? It’s because art is a lot more fragile than it seems. The guardians are so big that it is hard to imagine they are delicate, but the wood is at least six hundred years old and can be brittle. Instead of being sacrificed during a brutal fight to defend the museum, the finger more likely was knocked off by a visitor who got too close.

Besides the risk of breaking off a piece, there are a few really big reasons why we ask you to not touch the art:

  1. Touching an artwork just one time doesn’t seem like it would have much impact. But each time someone moves their hand across an object, a tiny bit is rubbed off. Over time, this contact can cause a lot of damage. For example, look inside this installation in the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum:rubbed patina _NMNH
    See the part that looks shiny rather than dark? That’s where people have rubbed off the dark brown layer, or patina. It’s OK in this case—the museum intended for people to touch the object—but what if it weren’t?
  2. Everyone has oils on their hands. When you touch something, you leave some of those oils behind, creating your unique fingerprints. Those residues also can cause damage. Check out this lacquer lid of a ewer in our collection that has fingerprints etched into the surface from oils left behind. We can’t get the prints off; they are now part of the object.

    Fingerprint on the lacquer lid of a Karatsu ware ewer or freshwater jar.

    Fingerprint on the lacquer lid of a Karatsu ware ewer or freshwater jar.

  3. Unless you just washed your hands, remainders of anything else you touched recently will be left on the art as well. So those Nacho Cheese Doritos you had in your lunch? Yup. They’re on there too. As conservators, we wash our hands really well before working with art. And for really sensitive materials, like metals or lacquer or ivory, we also wear gloves.

Try This
Many works of art and historic objects are unique, the only examples of their kind in the world. And every time someone touches one of these objects in the gallery, we lose a little bit of history. Wanna see what I mean? Try this activity and see what happens—and send me pictures!

Take a piece of white printer paper and cover half of it with plastic wrap. Place it at the door of your house or classroom, or another place with a lot of foot traffic (the bathroom, maybe?). Ask everyone to touch or rub the material every time they walk by. Check back in two weeks. What has happened to the exposed part of the object? How does it compare to the side that is covered? What does it make you think about museums’ “don’t touch” policy?


This is the first in a series of blog posts for kids who are interested in art conservation. Follow along for more behind-the-scenes looks at why and how we care for our collections, working to protect and conserve art for you today as well as for future visitors. What do you want to know? We’d love to hear your questions and comments!

Unraveling Our Objects’ Histories


Some of our objects carry thousands of years of history—yet their past seventy-five years or so may be the most difficult to unravel. During the tumultuous years before and during World War II, the Nazi regime and its collaborators orchestrated a system of confiscation, coercive transfer, looting, and destruction of cultural objects on an unprecedented scale. Millions of art objects and other cultural items were unlawfully and often forcibly taken from their rightful owners. While many of these confiscated items were returned after the war, some continue to appear on the legitimate art market and make their way into private and public collections.

As part of the Smithsonian’s ongoing commitment to establish provenance (a fancy word for origins and ownership history) across its collections, for years we have been working on a comprehensive research project focused on our Asian artworks. Our latest development is an updated provenance page on which you can learn about our efforts—and about the major Asian art dealers, collectors, and galleries involved in many of our objects’ histories.

This marks a new innovation in World War II provenance research, in that it focuses not on the artworks themselves but on the way they moved through a network of individuals, businesses, and museums. Some fifty biographies are now available to the public. For example, you can learn about C. T. Loo (1880–1957), a Chinese art dealer from whom the museum acquired nearly four hundred works, including this Tang dynasty mirror in 1935. 


The biographies are linked to their relevant objects with provenance records and related images. You’ll also find articles detailing auctions that were held in the critical years leading up to and during the World War II era. Together, this information reveals patterns of movement of Asian art that were previously hidden from researchers. And there’s more to come: we are planning to develop a tool that will incorporate the provenance data of partner institutions, helping us paint an even more complete picture of our collections’ past.

What’s Up in the Freer?

One of our Chinese art galleries as the Freer undergoes renovation

One of our Chinese art galleries rests as the Freer undergoes renovation.

While the Sackler is as lively as ever, over at the Freer Gallery of Art—now under renovation—the lights are dim, doors are shut, “CLOSED” signs are up, and it is deceptively quiet in the galleries. Every so often, the sounds of hammering and the laughter of hard-hatted contractors drift up the stairs. Come closer and you will find echoing galleries and sleeping beauties—but it didn’t get that way overnight.

The quiet north corridor

The quiet north corridor

"Sleeping beauties" in a gallery of Chinese Buddhist art

“Sleeping beauties” in our gallery of Chinese Buddhist art

Our collections management and design staff, with some very important helpers, worked tirelessly through January to systematically de-install the art from all exhibition areas. Nothing remains but a few sculptures in our Buddhist art gallery (pictured above, secure, tucked in, and dozing) and our two fearsome guardian figures, who are finally off their sore, flat feet and loudly snoring in the Peacock Room after many years of standing sentry in the Freer’s north corridor (see the slideshow below).


Stay tuned to Bento and sign up for our e-newsletters to follow along with the renovation project.

Enter the Peacock Room with Google Cardboard

Freer|Sackler photographer Neil Greentree tries out Google Cardboard

Freer|Sackler photographer Neil Greentree tries out Google Cardboard

Check your mailbox! The New York Times is sending more than one million Google Cardboard viewers to subscribers over the next few days. Currently, the Freer|Sackler is the only Smithsonian museum with Cardboard content. You can experience James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room in 360° and be transported to what was once an opulent dining room in London, then a private exhibition space in Detroit, and now a treasure of the Freer Gallery of Art.

Just download the Freer|Sackler app for your Android device, snap your phone into a Cardboard viewer, and press play. (iPhone users: stay tuned! We’ll have some good news for you shortly.) With this DIY take on a stereoscope, you’ll be able to experience storytelling in vivid detail.

With the Freer closing its doors on January 4, 2016, only two months remain to see the iconic Peacock Room in person. While you’re here, be sure to visit the Sackler installation Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre for a contemporary take on the room and its many layers of paint, gilding, and intrigue.

If you’re not expecting a Cardboard viewer from the Times, you can easily find one to purchase online or even make your own. In the meantime, explore the museum on Google Art Project.

Behind the Scenes: Sōtatsu

Sōtatsu maquette (with Batman and Catwoman)

Sōtatsu maquette (with Batman and Catwoman)

To prepare for the upcoming exhibition Sōtatsu: Making Waves, our designers are busy exploring ideas for the galleries. This maquette, or scale model, shows fabric banners that will grace the staircase between the exhibition’s two floors. Superheroes, courtesy of the graphic designer’s son, give us a sense of scale … as well as a sense of power!

Sōtatsu: Making Waves, the first exhibition in the West devoted to the seventeenth-century master Tawaraya Sōtatsu, opens at the Sackler on October 24. You never know who will show up…

Museum TLC: Sound Advice

Visitors take a tour of "Peacock Room REMIX" during Asia After Dark.

Visitors take a tour of “Peacock Room REMIX” during Asia After Dark: PEACOCKalypse.

A recent article in the Washington Post talked about the possible effects of loud music on artworks during large-scale museum events. We hear you and appreciate your concern. In fact, sound, light, temperature, and security are all factors that go into the planning and exhibiting of artworks. How does a museum care for its objects on exhibit while providing interesting, closeup experiences for visitors? Let’s ask the experts.

When I spoke to Beth Duley, head of collections management at the Freer|Sackler, she talked about the delicate balance between care and access. “Smithsonian museums are open 364 days a year, and we host millions of visitors,” she told me, adding, “Maintaining that balance is part of the day-to-day function of our job. In my 25 years at Freer|Sackler, no artwork has ever been damaged at an event.”

According to Jenifer Bosworth, exhibitions conservator, the process of caring for artworks begins long before objects are chosen for exhibition. “Our conservation department ensures that all objects chosen for display are in good condition and that an appropriate level of security for each object is reflected in the exhibition design. Specially made cases and vitrines, as well as custom-built mounts, are all fabricated with the objects’ safety in mind. We want people to get as close as possible, because that’s an amazing part of seeing great works of art in person.”

This preparation keeps artwork protected both during normal wear and tear (the constant vibration of passing trucks, the occasional wayward umbrella) and extraordinary circumstances (the 2013 earthquake that rocked DC). “After the earthquake, I ran into the Peacock Room, and all of the ceramics were still safely held in their specially made mounts,” said Duley.

For special events, such as the museums’ popular Asia After Dark after-hours parties, the entire staff works together. Conservators, curators, and security guards start early and work closely with event planners to map out traffic flow and the placement of speakers, lights, food and drink, and furniture. Conservators and members of the collections management team act as monitors during the event to ensure that all works of art remain safe and sound.

And speaking of sound, what about the issue of loud music in the galleries? Bosworth told me, “If anyone on my team feels that vibrations from a music performance could affect construction materials within the galleries and thus potentially the art, we address the issue immediately.” In fact, the effects of loud music on works of art have been studied in the conservation literature.

We strive to protect our objects on display while providing visitors a variety of ways to experience and learn about our collections. Our staff works together to find the best ways to balance security and access. This allows visitors to return to the Freer|Sackler often, knowing that their favorite works of art will still be here for their children and grandchildren, and the generations to come.

All That Glitters: Ara Güler Photos in the Freer|Sackler Archives

Cover of album containing Ara Güler photographs, Freer and Sackler Archives.

Cover of album containing Ara Güler photographs, Freer|Sackler Archives.

Johns Hopkins University students Christie YoungSmith and Gracie Golden helped curate the exhibition In Focus: Ara Güler’s Anatolia.

“Is this glitter?!”

Emily Jacobson, paper and photographs conservator at Freer|Sackler, peered closely at shiny speckles glimmering on the surface of a black-and-white photo.

“Perhaps Raymond Hare had a going-away party when he was given this set of photographs,” Nancy Micklewright, head of scholarly programs and publications, joked in response.

Emily was assessing the condition of Ara Güler’s photographs in the collection of the Freer|Sackler Archives. Although U.S. Ambassador Raymond Hare gave the images to the museums in 1989 in fairly good condition, the collection seemed to have been barraged with a number of glittery specks.

David Hogge, the museums’ head archivist, helped us to better understand the importance of archives collections. Museum archivists carefully select documents to preserve for research and display. Because archivists make deliberate choices about what to keep, museum archives not only document the past, but they also reveal what professionals find important about the past. They contain what is deemed worthy to preserve for future generations. The Freer|Sackler Archives contains more than 140 collections (amounting to more than one thousand linear feet of materials) dating from the eighteenth century to the present.

David also helped us figure out the origins of this particular photograph collection. Contained in two gift boxes made of Islamic-patterned cardboard and blue tape, Raymond Hare’s colleagues originally gave him the collection upon his departure from Turkey, where he served as U.S. Ambassador from 1961–65. The inscription on the gift box describes the Seljuk and Armenian ruins depicted in Güler’s images as remote and hard to access at the time—artifacts that Hare would have appreciated seeing as an architecture enthusiast. Finally, David recounted that in 1989 Hare gifted the photographs to the Freer and Sackler Galleries as part of a larger collection of images of Islamic architecture.

And the glitter? Without any factual information to link the glitter to the history of the photographs, it was cleaned off to protect the images.

For a look at the never-before-shown images, visit the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery for In Focus: Ara Güler’s Anatolia, on view through August 3, 2014.

Ara Güler: Photos at an Exhibition

The Church of St. Gregory of Tigran Honents, Ani; 1965; Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Archives; A1989.03

The Church of St. Gregory of Tigran Honents, Ani; Ara Güler, 1965; Freer Gallery of Art
and Arthur M. Sackler Archives; A1989.03

Johns Hopkins University students Christie YoungSmith and Gracie Golden helped curate the exhibition In Focus: Ara Güler’s Anatolia.

When we signed up for “Photographs on the Edge,” a Museums and Society practicum course at Johns Hopkins University, we expected an unorthodox experience. The course description marketed the class as an opportunity to work as a curator alongside Smithsonian staff, researching the work of Turkish Armenian photographer Ara Güler to develop an exhibition. It was without a doubt an extraordinary opportunity for an undergraduate.

On the first day of class, we met our professor, Nancy Micklewright, head of scholarly programs and publications at Freer|Sackler. She shared a slideshow of striking black-and-white images to introduce the class to the collection we would be working with throughout the semester. Depicting medieval Seljuk and Armenian monuments throughout Anatolia, Güler’s images capture ruins as they appeared in 1965. Blown away, we wondered aloud how we had gotten the opportunity to curate images by Turkey’s most famous photographer. Professor Micklewright responded that only one student proposal would be presented to a group of museum staff for development into a full-fledged exhibition. “You’re going to have to come up with some really compelling ideas,” was the implication; we would have to think like real curators.

Planning the exhibition at the Johns Hopkins practicum.

Planning the exhibition at the Johns Hopkins practicum.

After splitting into three groups, we took several trips to the Freer|Sackler Archives to work hands-on with the collection and generate ideas for exhibition proposals. Conducting historical research and visual analysis and even drawing up floor plans, the groups produced three exceptional proposals. The first focused on Güler’s images of Akdamar Island, the site of an Armenian church built in 922 CE. The second attempted to emulate Güler’s travels throughout Anatolia, moving geographically among the 10th–12th-century Armenian sites found in his photographs.

Ultimately, the proposal we chose to advance centered on the photojournalist himself. Although he is well recognized in the art world, Güler rejects the idea that he is an artist, arguing that his photojournalistic images “capture the truth” while art is “fictitious.” Our exhibition, which opened December 14, examines this ongoing debate between document and art, asking viewers to draw their own opinions about Güler’s historically significant and aesthetically striking images.

As we originally suspected, “Photographs on the Edge” offered a unique class experience. Not many undergraduates are able to say they have guest-curated an exhibition at the Smithsonian. Working with Freer|Sackler staff to develop this concept has been a truly extraordinary and rewarding adventure.

Next up in this blog series, we’ll take a look at Ara Güler and the lost city of AphrodisiasIn Focus: Ara Güler’s Anatolia remains on view in the Sackler through May 4, 2014. Follow the conversation using hashtag #araguler.