Category Archives: Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes: A Perfect Harmony

© 59 Productions 2017

This is a guest blog by our friends at 59 Productions.

59 Productions was approached by the Freer|Sackler to help tell the story of the Freer Gallery of Art’s genesis and to bring its collections to life in a fun and spectacular way. The aim was to create a large-scale public artwork to mark the museums’ reopening after a two-year renovation. Using animation and projection-mapping immediately seemed like the best approach: the technique allows us to celebrate the architecture of the Freer building by using its Italianate facade as a vast canvas for bespoke animations, inspired by the museum’s history and collection.

© 59 Productions 2017

One of the main challenges was to find a way to tell the story of both the museum and its charismatic and visionary founder, Charles Lang Freer, in a predominantly visual way. We were keen to avoid voice-over and text to ensure that the piece felt exciting rather than didactic, and to make it appeal to international audiences and non-English speakers.

© 59 Productions 2017

From a technical perspective, the 59 Productions team built on its experience of producing projection-mapping events for a range of iconic institutions around the world, including the Sydney Opera House, the United Nations Headquarters in New York, and Edinburgh Castle. We took a laser scan of the Freer Gallery’s facade, which allowed 59’s technical team to produce a very accurate 3-D model. This model was then used to generate “UVs”—essentially unwrapped nets that represent each surface of the building. Animated material was then created to fit these templates before being remapped onto the building’s architecture using a media server system. The piece could then be previsualized in 3-D, allowing the creative team to review animated content mapped onto a virtual version of the building from the comfort of our London studio.

© 59 Productions 2017

From a creative point of view, 59 Productions’ team of writers and researchers worked closely with the Freer|Sackler Archives staff and curators to craft a narrative that does justice to the Freer’s complex history but is also visually powerful and easy to follow. This “shooting script” was then used to create a series of visual briefs for animators who, using a variety of 2-D and 3-D animation techniques, worked on separate chapters of the piece, each of which tells a different aspect of the museum’s story. The show also features a specially curated soundtrack featuring classical and contemporary music from around the globe.

© 59 Productions 2017

The final result is a twelve-minute whirlwind tour of the museum’s history. The story spans the whole of the last century, from Charles Lang Freer’s industrial roots to his friendship with James McNeill Whistler, to the birth and growth of his collection of Asian art and the eventual bequest of said collection to the American people. The piece is not just a celebration of Freer the man, but also of his philosophy—that art has the power to enrich everybody’s lives. Freer believed passionately in cross-cultural exchange and that the appreciation of beauty is universal, crossing borders both geographical and temporal.

© 59 Productions 2017

A Perfect Harmony looks back at the Freer Gallery’s history, but it also looks forward to the continued exchange of ideas between America and the rest of the world. At a time of much uncertainty and division, we are delighted to remind everyone in Washington of the values that Charles Lang Freer enshrined in his museum. We hope that the piece will inspire people to not only visit the museum, but also to take some of its founder’s appreciation of beauty and his spirit of tolerance out into the world.

Don’t miss A Perfect Harmony when it debuts at the Freer|Sackler’s IlluminAsia festival. The piece will be shown four times on the evening of Saturday, October 14.

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: Preparations Begin

Preparation for the Freer|Sackler reopenings in the DES shops

Watch as Freer|Sackler employee John Piper prepares a mount for an object slated for display for the re-opening. We’re excited for the re-opening. Will we see you there?

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.