Category Archives: Behind the Scenes

Emperors and Interns: Behind the Scenes of Worlds within Worlds

Book cover from a volume of the Gulshan Album, painted with colors and gold and lacquered, India, F1999.2a-b

Najiba H. Choudhury interned in the curatorial department and assisted with Worlds within Worlds; she now works in the registrar’s office but continues to do research for Yoga: The Art of Transformation, opening in 2013. Mekala Krishnan is a curatorial researcher working on the yoga exhibition.

Mekala Krishnan: Tell us about your work at F|S. Maybe describe your typical day in the curatorial department.

Najiba Choudhury: I don’t think there is a typical day for a curatorial intern. There were weeks when I was doing only pure research. You know: scouring for material, poring over books, and writing reports on objects for an upcoming exhibition. Then there is the usual scanning, xeroxing, editing images, and putting together PowerPoint presentations. I was also able to assist my supervisor, curator Debra Diamond, on the Worlds within Worlds exhibition. For a while I was just reading multiple rounds of the label texts for the exhibition, proofreading, and fact-checking. The nature of the work varies wildly, depending on the needs of the department at that moment. You also get to attend talks, events, and storage visits at the Freer and Sackler.

MK: Are there aspects of curatorial work that you hadn’t expected coming in?

NC: The public aspect of a curator’s job surprised me. I hadn’t realized that a BIG part of being a curator is interacting with people. This includes not only communicating with multiple departments within the museums but also with the public. You have to keep in touch with scholars in your field and museum professionals from the other institutions, cultivate relationships with donors and friends of the museums, and talk to the press. Then, obviously, curators have to give exhibition tours and other talks for the general public. It’s a lot!

MK: What was your favorite part of working on Worlds within Worlds?

NC: First of all, it was an amazing learning experience to observe the whole process of putting together an exhibition; so many different departments are involved in the process. It truly is a team effort. But I have to say, the most exciting part for me was going into storage and the conservation labs and just looking at the objects really closely, and listening to the curators and various experts talk about the pieces, discussing their details. It’s almost like going to a jam session. I mean, there have been so many moments when we discovered something new just by looking at art objects together, discussing our thoughts, and hashing out ideas.

MK: Tell us more about the process of putting together an exhibition. How are the paintings chosen?

NC: Worlds within Worlds presented an unique situation in that the exhibition is in honor of the revised and expanded edition of Milo Cleveland Beach’s book The Imperial Image, which presents the Mughal collection of the Freer and Sackler Galleries. So in some ways, we already had the source material in hand. But the exhibition curators, Debra Diamond and Massumeh Farhad, wanted to add another layer, highlighting the historical and stylistic connections between Persian and Mughal painting traditions. While selecting paintings for the three galleries, we not only tried to pick our strongest works, but also examples that demonstrate the distinct sensibilities of the three Mughal emperors (Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan), show certain shifts in style and subject based on the emperors’ demands and desires, and demonstrate the cosmopolitan nature of the Mughal courts between the 16th and 17th centuries. I think it’s quite clever the way each painting serves multiple purposes/narratives at the same time.

The literal answer to your question is: One day I came into Debra’s office and the whole floor was covered with printouts of images (by leoncio). She was pairing paintings together and trying to curve out narratives from them, in an attempt to plan a gallery wall. Later on, there were multiple rounds of editing, where Debra and Massumeh would sit together discuss the layout, often removing paintings from the object list and adding new ones.

MK: What can we learn about the Mughal empire from Worlds within Worlds? What new “worlds” did you discover?

NC: The Mughals were highly cosmopolitan. They were very much in touch with the Islamic world (both Persian and Ottoman empires) and also in contact with Europeans through official dignitaries and Jesuit missionaries who visited the Indian subcontinent. The Mughals were distinctly aware of local traditions in India, and were in constant dialogue with Hindus, Jains, and Muslims. This cross-cultural interaction and diversity is directly reflected in the paintings that were commissioned by the Mughal emperors, as seen in Worlds within Worlds.

As to discovering new worlds: Even since the exhibition went up, I’m discovering new things every day. Just the other day, I was touring the exhibition with two of my coworkers from the Islamic Department and one of them pointed out the face of a woman poking out of a window in the Noah’s Ark painting. You only see a tiny face, but there is no doubt that it’s a woman. It’s totally cool! I find that it’s moments like these that make working in a Mughal exhibition truly special. The paintings are filled with intricate details; they were meant to be held closely, like a book, and carefully studied. Hence, you are constantly finding new elements.

MK: You were involved with creating the website for the exhibition. Tell us about what you did.

NC: I was involved from the initial stages of creating the online component of Worlds within Worlds. I selected the Mughal paintings on which you can zoom in and click on specific parts for more details. I also helped shape content, which included writing some of the zoomify details, among other things.

MK: What is your favorite zoomify detail and why?

NC: I love the Gulshan album cover details. They are difficult to see even with magnifying glasses, but now people can visit the website to view them with very high degrees of magnification. I love the scene showing a group of Europeans dressed in their fineries, enjoying fine food and music. It’s very much about indulging your senses. And then to its left, there’s another detail showing two ascetics (yogis) scantily dressed who have renounced all forms of pleasure. The way it juxtaposes opposites, indulging your senses and austerity, all in the same page is really interesting to me.

There is another detail from the album cover where you have an adorable cheetah sitting on a horse, next to a royal hunter. I didn’t know before working on this project that a) you can tame a cheetah and b) on hunts the Mughals would take domesticated cheetahs as part of their royal entourage. Every time I see the cheetah, just casually sitting there, it cracks me up!

Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran closes on Sunday, September 16, 2012.

On Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence

Orhan Pamuk, photographed in the Sackler Gallery by John Tsantes

Head of Scholarly Publications and Programs at Freer|Sackler, Nancy Micklewright is just back from a trip to Istanbul, where she met with leading scholars and colleagues and visited the city’s newest museum.

Istanbul, already a city of great museums, has a new one. Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence (Masumiyet Müzesi in Turkish) opened on April 28. Pamuk, the Nobel Prize laureate, conceived of his museum and his novel of the same name, published in 2008, as two parts of the same project. His novel, set in Istanbul of the 1970s, is a love story. The protagonist, Kemal, is obsessed with Füsun, his beloved, and lives out his obsession by trying to collect everything she has touched or that embodies their lives together so that he will always remember her.

Kemal’s collection, painstakingly assembled by Pamuk, is displayed in the museum, a converted 19th-century house. The 83 vitrines correspond to the 83 chapters in the book and are filled with thousands of objects—snapshots, keys, watches, salt and pepper shakers, matchbooks, restaurant menus. Some pieces have been fabricated, including the collection of 4,213 cigarette butts (every cigarette smoked by Füsun during the years of Kemal and Füsun’s love affair), but most were collected from the junk and antique stores of Istanbul. The museum’s design and installation were a collaborative effort of the author and a team of professional designers, and the result is engaging, even bewitching.

Ticket and postcard from the Museum of Innocence

Presenting fabricated objects together with historic artifacts, all in the service of a narrative that is itself a fiction, disrupts the visitor’s expectations about authenticity and reality. The multiple voices of the wall text, sometime Pamuk reporting on a conversation with Kemal, sometimes Kemal himself speaking, further confuse the visitor.

The museum offers a chance to engage with big questions: What is the relationship between objects and memory? Does a novel need a museum to complete its message? What does it mean when a museum collection is a work of fiction? What is the difference between a museum and the performance of a museum? Is there a difference?

Interested in learning more about contemporary practice in museums? The Freer|Sackler’s lecture series Exhibiting Asia in the 21st Century resumes on September 12 with a look at The Gulshan Album: The Collections of a Young Prince by distinguished scholar Milo Cleveland Beach.

Hokusai by the Book

Katsushika Hokusai, Imayō Kushi Kiseru Hinagata, 1823 (Popular Designs of Comb and Tobacco Pipes)

In honor of the exhibition Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji, Bento asked Reiko Yoshimura, head librarian at Freer|Sackler, to tell us a little about the Hokusai books in the library’s collection.

The Freer|Sackler Library has a collection of close to one thousand volumes of mostly Edo period illustrated books that originally came from Charles Lang Freer’s personal library. Freer collected these books along with other Japanese artworks that are now in the Freer Gallery of Art. The book collection includes many works by major Edo period artists as well as illustrated volumes on the tea ceremony and flower arranging. Among the most prominent works are books by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849).

Hokusai was as prolific a book illustrator as he was a painter and printmaker. The official Hokusai catalogue lists more than 260 titles of woodblock printed books, including novels, mad verses, painting albums, painting samples and instruction, tourist guides, erotica, and craft designs. Due to the wide range of subjects and genres, his books have been appreciated by an array of audiences, from scholars to children, long after his death. Hokusai is also known for his Hokusai Manga (Hokusai Sketchbooks), which was enthusiastically admired in Europe when it was introduced in the mid-19th century. The Freer|Sackler Library contains sixty-eight volumes of Hokusai’s books, representing most of the genres mentioned above.

Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji remains on view in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery through June 17, 2012. Charles Lang Freer had a special interest in the works of Hokusai and gathered an unmatched collection of paintings and drawings. Two complementary exhibitions in the Freer highlight these magnificent works. Hokusai: Paintings and Drawings closes June 24. Hokusai: Screens remains on view through July 29.

Ai Weiwei in Just Over a Minute

In addition to being our go-to guy for all things technological, Hutomo Wicaksono is the F|S videographer, creating features on exhibitions and special events. Here’s how he put together the time-lapse of the installation of Ai Weiwei’s work Fragments in the Sackler pavilion.

We mounted the camera high on the wall, very close to the ceiling, with the camera running for approximately eight hours each day. Every two minutes it took a picture, giving us about 250 photos each day. That part of the process took four days to complete, so by the end of day four, I had collected about 1,000 images.

Then it was on to two days of editing. I combined all of the photos together as a continuous action video using Adobe After Effects. Because we wanted to see fast-action movement, I set up the timing of each photo to be 0.05 second, so we could see about twenty photos per second. Once that finished, we searched for background music, created a video bumper, and shot some closing stills. I put everything back together in After Effects, added some mojo, and voilà, six days later, it was finished!

Grass and Honey: An Interview with Heejin Kim


Sangdon Kim, Garden of Discord, 2010- , permanent outdoor garden made of recycled flowerpots, adopted plants, and donated seeds at Art Space Pool, Seoul. Copyright Art Space Pool, Seoul

In advance of her talk at the Freer on Thursday night (April 5 at 7 pm), Heejin Kim chatted with Bento about art, Seoul, and her work as director of Art Space Pool, an alternative art space.

Bento: How would you describe the contemporary art landscape in South Korea?
Heejin Kim: The current contemporary art scene of Korea, whether be it in Seoul or in other cities, seems active and dynamic. Compared to the time of liberal government 4 years ago, the current climate of the cultural scene of Korea is relatively depressed and exhausted. But seen from the average pace in other regions, the Korean cultural scene is still super fast and prolific.

What I am concerned about is this disparity between the quantity and quality, and psycho-political depression heavily looming over creative workers. Among the art people, there is to be sure a general disappointment at the populist cultural policy of the conservative government that cared only for the number and spectacle, and drastically cuts down the budget for an infrastructure and long-term, immaterial, not-market-friendly cultural production. However, the reason is not just a bad cultural policy or a subsequent poor art market situation. It’s coming from many other comprehensive social concerns, about labor, social welfare, economic polarization, unemployment rate, education, environment, and recurring corruptions, censorship, and surveillance. No wonder there emerges an undeniable number of off-the-road informal pursuits among cultural producers as a way to sustain themselves while detouring smartly around pitfalls.

This complex strategy makes tired cultural producers. At this point, the Korean contemporary society is exhausted, yet excited about two [upcoming] elections, one of which is on April 11. We don’t expect an absolute ideal, but at least here comes a chance for reformation and change, hopefully in a better way.

Bento: What was it like growing up in the 1980s in one of the headiest times in Korea for artists and politics?
Heejin Kim: It would be a lie if I say I knew what was going on in society as a teenager. When I was in high school, students stayed at school from 6 am to 11 pm [to prepare] for college entrance examinations, repeating drills and memorizing tons of textbooks, especially English. Generally youngsters shared this sense of suffocation. I felt like there’s a huge hand oppressing and binding so hard from nowhere. And unconsciously we all knew if we shake ourselves from the grip, it will choke you in a minute.

There came some sporadic shocks right into your face, like flyers strewn at the school playground by college students’ guerilla actions. They were mostly on the Gwangju massacre of May 18, 1980, with vivid journalistic images. The shock used to last for some months, making you physically sick and full of guilt. Simply the fact that we were alive while not knowing the recent history that had occurred in our country made us sick.

Meanwhile, we heard about serial suicide protests ongoing among college students and factory workers, sometimes four times in one month. I felt sorry to be alive, in a way, and intimidated by what might come in my near future. I was mad at the reality that trapped me in the time of paradox. I entered college in 1989 and I saw the last chapter of democratization struggle getting on a sad, anti-climatic path.

Bento: As director of Art Space Pool since 2010, what do you envision as the collective’s aims for the near future?
Heejin Kim: I used to have a long-term master plan for Art Space Pool, but who can guarantee what will happen in a year? At this point, I can only tell what I’ve done so far. [There are three] very challenging goals: 1) sustaining the value of integrity and productivity without being institutionalized, 2) balancing between the artist-run space quality and realistic, efficient professionalism, and 3) balancing between regional criticism and internationalization. Practically? I wish Pool could get away from the annual nightmare of in-between fiscal year hardships at a minimum survival level.

Bento: Can you give us a little preview of your talk on April 5?
Heejin Kim: I will convey some stories on the art practices by local fellow artists around my two spaces, Pool (meaning “Grass”) and Ccuull (meaning “Honey”). Since my spaces, compared to museums, are situated almost at the forefront of artists keeping intimate and everyday relationships, I think it is my role as a curator to portray what’s going on, instead of analyze. I hope my talk could be useful for those who want to complement the Korean film and video screenings currently ongoing at Freer|Sackler, and to explore more information on contemporary art practices, art resources, art spaces, and the art system in Seoul.

Bento: For you, what is the role of the artist in society?
Heejin Kim: Helping you see, sense, recognize, remember, think, and dream better in reality by means of imaginary languages.

Eye Wonder Redux

Kenzan style desk screen with design of mountain retreat; late 19th century; Kyoto workshop; buff clay, iron pigment, enamels under transparent lead glaze; gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1897.20

About a year ago we invited our web visitors to engage in a new form of “Eye Wonder” by experiencing the Freer Gallery of Art on Google Art Project. The Art Project is an armchair art lover’s dream, offering unprecedented online access to collections and in-gallery street views, not to mention stunning gigapixel-level encounters with selected works of art in some of the world’s greatest museums. The Freer was among the first 17 museums around the globe to engage in this new digital art adventure.

Today Google Art Project launches a considerably enhanced and expanded “phase two” version. The site now brings together a wide range of institutions, large and small: iconic art museums as well as less traditional settings for great art.

On the Freer pages of Art Project, visitors will find 100 newly uploaded high-resolution images from the collections and greatly improved street view technology. Street-view strolls now extend to the entire museum and make more artworks available for up-close inspection. A virtual walk through The Peacock Room—as restored to its appearance in 1908, when museum founder Charles Lang Freer installed the room in his home and used it to organize and display his collection of more than 250 Asian ceramics—is resplendent with colors, textures, and shapes.

After taking in all four walls of this remarkable exhibition, a visitor, perhaps sitting at home in Hamburg or Honolulu with a cup of tea, can click a mouse to explore selected ceramics in thrilling detail. Take, for example, this intriguing Japanese desk screen from the Meiji era, inscribed with a poem by Li Dongyang.

We do indeed live in a time of Eye Wonder.


Deb Galyan is the head of public affairs and marketing at Freer|Sackler.

Making an Exhibition: The Sequel

Ancient Chinese Jades

Ancient Chinese Jades

Here’s a view of the recently reconceived and reinstalled gallery of ancient Chinese jades. We’ll also put up some details that capture the beauty of the objects as well as of the installation as a whole. This reinstallation represents the first phase of a three-year plan to reimagine the Freer’s entire suite of six Chinese galleries.

Making an Exhibition

Installation shot of the Ancient Chinese Jades exhibition in the Freer Gallery

Installation shot of the Ancient Chinese Jades exhibition in the Freer Gallery

The Freer Gallery recently renovated four of its suite of Chinese galleries, beginning with Ancient Chinese Jades and Bronzes, most of which had been in storage for more than ten years. A lot of prep work goes on behind the scenes that involves curators, designers, art handlers, expert mount makers to name a few. Here, you can see a few of the jade bi on the blue cart at left, and the new cases that had been specially built to “float” them.