Category Archives: Behind the Scenes

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.

Busted! The Secret Lives of Agnes Meyer and Charles Lang Freer

Head of Agnes Meyer by Charles Despiau; Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Ruth Meyer Epstein; FSC-M-69

“Head of Agnes Meyer” by Charles Despiau; Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Ruth Meyer Epstein; FSC-M-69

Claire Douglas, a student of American studies and studio art at Occidental College, was a summer intern in the American art department at Freer|Sackler.

It’s easy to walk into the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Auditorium in the Freer Gallery without giving the bronze bust of Mrs. Meyer in the entryway a second thought. Head of Agnes Meyer, which was sculpted by Charles Despiau (1874–1946) in 1928 and installed in the Freer Gallery in 1992, is just what one might expect to find in a theater named after an old-money family—a conservative portrait in a traditional medium of a beautiful woman with downcast eyes, betraying little in her expression.

Meyer’s name may ring a bell with Washingtonians—she was the mother of Katharine Graham, the legendary publisher of the Washington Post, and wrote for the Post herself. She spent the later part of her life as an activist for labor, civil, and women’s rights, earning her a spot on President John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women. She was also passionate about Asian art, which inevitably led to a great friendship with Detroit industrialist and museum founder Charles Lang Freer. Agnes Meyer’s contributions to the founding and early history of the Freer Gallery were vast. She bequeathed pieces from her own priceless collection of Asian art to the museum and worked with curators and directors to ensure that the museum reflected Freer’s original vision. Significantly, only she and Freer’s secretary, Katharine Nash Rhoades, had carte-blanche in making new acquisitions for the museum after Freer’s death. Mrs. Meyer’s official legacy as an accomplished and influential woman, whose public persona is embodied in Despiau’s bust, lives on after her death in 1970.

Yet the story that Despiau’s portrait conceals in its conventional form is equally as interesting. Agnes Meyer, or Agnes Ernst as she was known before her marriage to multimillionaire banker Eugene Meyer, was not quite the circumspect matronly type that her bronze statue suggests. During her youth, she actually had a notorious reputation among art and society circles as a social butterfly, a shameless gossip, and a flirt. Her radiant personality earned her the nickname “Sun Girl” in Alfred Stieglitz’s circle of avant-garde artists, and a spot as one of the most coveted subjects for painters, sculptors, photographers, and poets. Even after her marriage in 1910, she maintained scandalously passionate and intimate friendships with such powerful men as photographer Edward Steichen, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and, of course, Charles Lang Freer.

Agnes Meyer first met Freer at an exhibition of Chinese paintings in a New York City gallery in 1913, and later recalled an intense connection from the moment they shook hands. She quickly nicknamed Freer, who was 59 to her 26, “Prince Charming.” Freer’s health was seriously failing by 1913, but Meyer nevertheless portrayed the seemingly staid connoisseur as a longtime ladies’ man. As reticent as Meyer was flamboyant, Freer rarely divulged details about his personal life—including his sexuality. She later recalled “His numerous relationships with the opposite sex, which were no secret from his many friends.” When she visited Freer in Detroit, her husband insisted that she bring along a friend to accompany her “into the dangerous lair of Prince Charming.” She and her beautiful young friends Marion Beckett and Katharine Rhoades all began to pay Freer visits. He called the group of young ladies the “Three Graces” and they affectionately called him “The General.”

But Agnes’ carefree and punchy personality also made her a magnet for controversy. In 1970, more than fifty years after Freer’s death and shortly before her own, she published a memoir about their unique relationship entitled Charles Lang Freer and His Gallery. Told through the filter of memory and filled with previously unknown accounts of Freer’s personal life, this short pamphlet stirred up so much controversy that for a time it was banned from the Freer Gallery’s library. Full of tales of Freer’s philandering in Europe with Stanford White, his fiery temper later in life, and the “exquisite” quality of their personal relationship, Charles Lang Freer and His Gallery says as much about Mrs. Meyer as it does about Mr. Freer.

Agnes E. Meyer by Constantin Brancusi, marble, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer; F1967.13.4

“Agnes E. Meyer” by Constantin Brancusi, marble, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer; 1967.13.4

Even the bronze bust itself, so modest and unassuming in appearance, stirred up controversy in the art world. Upon hearing that his rival Charles Despiau had created a likeness of Mrs. Meyer, modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi is said to have declared to her, “[I will show you] what a portrait of you is really like!” Three years later, in 1929, he finished a sleek, monumental black marble sculpture entitled Agnes E. Meyer: La Reine pas Dedaigneuse (the Not-Disdainful Queen), which towers seven-and-a-half feet tall. Even though it is hardly recognizable as a human figure, lacking the detail of Despiau’s bust, Brancusi’s work manages to evoke Meyer’s naturally intense and mesmerizing presence. Brancusi’s larger-than-life stylistic challenge to Despiau is now housed at the National Gallery of Art.

So the next time you attend an event at the Meyer Auditorium, take a moment to consider the demure bronze bust that greets you on your way to your foreign film screening or scholarly lecture. If Agnes Meyer, for all her eccentricities, her love of gossip and mischief, and her affinity for controversy, could be immortalized as this proper and staid-faced woman, what other wild stories may lurk behind the manicured façade of the Freer Gallery?

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Working on the installation of Rina Banerjee's A World Lost in the Sackler pavilion

Working on the installation of Rina Banerjee’s A World Lost in the Sackler pavilion

Ellen Cline is an intern in the ImaginAsia family program at Freer|Sackler

Being an intern in Washington, DC, often means spending your day answering phones, running for coffee, and providing Washingtonians with plenty of fodder for intern jokes and stories.

I can say these things because I am a DC intern, but my own experience at the Sackler couldn’t be more different. From my first day at the museum, I’ve been immersed in hands-on experiences that range from rummaging through artifacts in storage rooms to helping children make art during the ImaginAsia family programs.

When I arrive at the museum each morning, I usually take the stairs down one level to the ImaginAsia classroom, not so much for exercise, but for the feeling of grandeur I get when I descend majestically (backpack notwithstanding). A few weeks ago, I was headed for the stairs when I walked by artist Rina Banerjee installing her sculpture in the Sackler pavilion. As a sculpture student who had been eagerly anticipating Banerjee’s exhibition, I wanted more than anything to duck under the black stanchions and watch the artist at work.

I soon had the opportunity to do just that—and more. Stephen Eckerd, head of ImaginAsia, told me to go upstairs and see if Rina Banerjee needed any help with her installation. “Tell them you’re from ImaginAsia,” he said. He didn’t have to ask twice.

A true child of my generation, my first impulse was to post something on Twitter. Instead, I took the stairs two at a time and then tried to cover my excitement with some level of professionalism as I walked over to Banerjee and curator Carol Huh. I introduced myself and was immediately put to work.

Art and art-making in particular have an incredible ability to create instant community. This was certainly true of my experience assisting Banerjee. Her group of helpers ranged from the curator to museum conservators to young interns—all gathered around one evolving work of art. Some of us high-fived as we untangled portions of the piece; the conservators and interns swapped recommendations about DC art exhibits; and Banerjee supervised with humble, unassuming authority.

In a way, this joining of forces, even around something as simple as the addition of threads to a rope, added meaning to Banerjee’s already rich work. The installation focuses on environmental losses, cultural changes through global movements, and rivers in their life-giving and life-threatening nature. As we worked, Banerjee talked about the river’s vital role in communities. How appropriate, I thought, as we worked quietly, that we, too, are gathering around this symbolic and reimagined river.

Banerjee’s piece, A World Lost, and various elements of the work suggest more foreboding notes, like the pieces of coral that allude to the environment’s negative effect on coral reefs. Helping the artist enriched my thinking about endangerment and loss. If we are to counteract global losses, we must make small, steady actions, and repeat them without losing hope: like threading a needle, running it through a rope, and then doing it all over again. Focused on the individual actions, I didn’t immediately see how much ground we covered that morning—all working together, hundreds of threads forming a hair-like covering, the strands intertwining and indistinguishable from one another.

Watching Banerjee’s piece come together before my eyes was educational and inspiring. It’s often said that learning is best achieved by doing. By kindly letting me into her process, Rina Banerjee allowed me to learn about art installation firsthand. From her patient demeanor as well as her flexibility throughout the process, I also learned the value of humility and approachability.

A World Lost, like all of Banerjee’s work, is filled with textures, objects, and associations. It now carries a special, personal association for me as well. This site-specific installation will be on view through June 8, 2014. If you come to see it, consider taking the stairs down to the museum’s other exhibitions. You may see a short, dark-haired intern heading toward another unexpected adventure at the Sackler.

A Flowerful Fourth

Flowers for the Fourth of July in the Sackler pavilion.

Flowers for the Fourth of July in the Sackler pavilion; photo by F|S intern Katherine Nau

Did your July 4th go off with a boom? Ours at the Sackler is more of a bloom. In honor of the holiday, Cheyenne Kim, Smithsonian horticultural specialist, created a unique display that proves that fireworks don’t always have to be loud … or, even outdoors. Sometimes, quiet and contemplative is best.

If you’re planning a visit this weekend, don’t miss the flowers!

Together We’re One: Crowdfunding our Yoga Exhibition

Vishvarupa (detail) from the exhibition, Yoga: The Art of Transformation

Vishvarupa (detail) from the exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation

Miranda Gale is project manager of Together We’re One.

On Wednesday, May 29, the Freer|Sackler will launch the Smithsonian’s first major crowdfunding campaign, “Together we’re one.” The campaign will support Yoga: The Art of Transformation, the world’s first exhibition on yogic art, opening this October at the Sackler Gallery. You may have read about the campaign in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Washington City Paper, or DCist, or perhaps heard about it on NBC Washington—but what exactly is “Together we’re one,” and why did we choose to launch the campaign in the first place? Here are the answers to our most frequently asked questions as we prepare to make yoga history over the next five weeks.

Why crowdfunding?
We’re trying a new (to us, at least!) and innovative fundraising approach worthy of a new and innovative exhibition. Crowdfunding is not too different from our other fundraising efforts; we’re just asking more people for a smaller amount of money, rather than asking a few people or corporations for a large amount of money. Since so many people practice and are enthusiastic about yoga, we’re choosing a format that allows everyone to get involved, not just those who have the means to make large donations.

Why does the Smithsonian need money? Don’t our taxes fund the museums?

While federal taxpayer funding covers some of our costs (mostly operating costs, such as keeping the galleries clean and the lights on), private and public support—whether from donors, sponsors, or grants—cover the majority of expenses related to exhibitions and programming. We rely on public and private support to offer our programs and exhibitions free of charge to the public. Private and public support for the Yoga exhibition will help us create videos, publications, and pamphlets; print catalogs (and sell them for a much more reasonable price than through a bookstore!); offer yoga classes during the exhibition, and more.

The cost of putting on a major exhibition like this one is high—but not unusual for the Freer|Sackler. It is simply necessary for keeping the artwork and visitors safe and ensuring a quality experience for both.

How will my money be used?
Yoga: The Art of Transformation, a longtime labor of love for the Freer|Sackler, will bring more than 130 artworks from around the world to Washington, DC. The associated costs are high. All donations will fund the unexciting but expensive logistics (shipping, mounting, lighting, paint, cases, labels), plus the fun aspects that allow us to better share the exhibition’s content with the public: workshops for adults and families, yoga classes in the exhibit space, a yoga festival, pamphlets and other takeaway materials, honorariums for speakers and teachers, a comprehensive website, and videos. It will also support a public symposium that will bring international art and yoga scholars to DC, and the production of a full-color exhibition catalog, the first on yogic art.

Visit our website to learn more about the campaign, or email us at to see how you can get involved.


The Search for Ancient China … Begins in New Jersey?

Paul Singer's apartment in Summit, New Jersey (photo byJohn Tsantes).

Paul Singer’s apartment in Summit, New Jersey (photo by John Tsantes).

Dr. Paul Singer amassed one of the most important Chinese archaeological collections in the United States and kept the more than five thousand objects in his modest apartment. With One Man’s Search for Ancient China: The Paul Singer Collection opening on Saturday, we asked photographer John Tsantes, head of Imaging and Photographic Services at Freer|Sackler, to talk about shooting the collection in situ at Singer’s New Jersey home back in 1998.

“Dr. Singer’s house, in a nondescript garden apartment complex in New Jersey, was not what I had expected. When you walked in the front door you had to be careful where you stepped. If you weren’t looking, you could bump into an object. In those days before digital, we shot with film. I had a camera mounted on a tripod and had trouble finding any space that would let me stand behind the three legs of the tripod. Every chair, every sofa, indeed every surface in every room—that includes the bathroom—was filled with objects, but everything was very well packaged and organized. One closet was filled with small boxes wrapped in brocade from floor to ceiling, and in each was an important object. When you opened a kitchen cabinet, you’d discover a work of art. Our registrars, who were cataloguing the collection, never thought that they’d be able to leave.”