Category Archives: From the Archives

Happy Birthday, Smithsonian!

Aerial view of the Freer Gallery, ca. 1923

Aerial view of the Freer Gallery, ca. 1923

Today marks a full 170 years for the Smithsonian. When the Freer Gallery opened to the public in 1923, it became the first art museum on the Smithsonian campus. The Freer story, however, began in 1906, when Charles Lang Freer gave his collection of Asian and American art to the nation, a gift he had proposed to President Theodore Roosevelt a year before. By exploring the differences in arts from around the world, the Freer Gallery of Art would unite, in Freer’s own words, “modern work with masterpieces of certain periods of high civilization harmonious in spiritual suggestion.”

In this photo, dated to around the time of the Freer’s opening, you can spot the Department of Agriculture at the corner of Independence Avenue and 12th Street and the Potomac River in the distance. While the Freer building is closed for renovation at the moment (a 94-year-old museum was in need of a few upgrades!), the Sackler is upholding our role as the Smithsonian’s museum of Asian art.

A Man and His Dog . . . and His Boar

Ernst Herzfeld and Bulbul, his pet boar; Iran, ca. 1933; silver gelatin print; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6

Ernst Herzfeld and Bulbul, his pet boar; Iran, ca. 1933; silver gelatin print; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6

What would you name your pet boar? German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948) went for a not-so-obvious choice, dubbing his trusty hog Bulbul, Persian for “nightingale.”

Herzfeld, known for his revelatory excavations in Pasargadae and Persepolis, among other ancient sites, was a rather serious scholar; some described him as exacting and reserved. Animals seemed to bring out another side of him. He even brought Bulbul along on his digs. Above, he’s feeding the boar in Persepolis, which the Iranian government asked him to document in 1924.

Ernst Herzfeld

Ernst Herzfeld

While in Iran, Herzfeld also kept a pet dog, a Welsh terrier named Romeo. The pup must have known how to win hearts. When he trod over an intricate drawing of a Persepolis structure by Herzfeld’s assistant Karl Bergner, leaving inky paw prints behind, no one seemed too upset. Bergner noted in German at the bottom of this 1935 work: “Romeo bumped into an inkpot and walked upon the drawing! The new drawing is already finished. Be(rgner).”

Persepolis (Iran), great stairway to the Terrace complex, plan and elevation by Karl Bergner, 1935 [drawing].

Persepolis (Iran), great stairway to the Terrace complex, plan and elevation by Karl Bergner, 1935

Visit Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae to learn more about the animal-loving archaeologist’s adventures in Iran.

Case Studies

Freer's "Book of Suggestions" contains sketches that inspired his thoughts on exhibition design and casework.

Freer’s “Book of Suggestions” contains sketches that inspired his thoughts on exhibition design and casework.

Talented carpenters, craftspeople, and exhibits specialists have been making our frames, cases, and vitrines ever since the Freer Gallery of Art opened to the public in 1923. Museum founder Charles Lang Freer took an interest in all aspects of displaying his art, from lighting to the proper way to make a case for ceramics. When the museum was still in the planning stages and Freer was looking for ideas as well as inspiration, he asked his assistant, Katharine Rhoades, to keep a notebook he titled “Book of Suggestions.” In it, Rhoades noted Freer’s ideas for exhibition cases and drew sketches of carpentry work he admired in other museums. At New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1918, for example, he took an interest in ways to display Syrian Rakka ware and mounts for bowls.

This attention to detail continues today throughout the Freer|Sackler (take a look courtesy of Google Art Project!). Cases protect the works, ensure their safety, and provide visitors the opportunity to get up close with rare works of art.

Come visit soon! While the Freer Gallery will close its doors on January 4, 2016, for renovation, the Sackler will remain open. Our fully digitized collections are always on view at Open F|S.

Larger Than Life: Restoring the Empress Dowager

The painting of the Empress Dowager, before, during, and after conservation.

The painting of the Empress Dowager, before, during, and after conservation.

David Hogge is head of Archives at the Freer|Sackler.

In 2011, the Sackler acquired a life-size portrait of China’s Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) painted by Katharine Augusta Carl in 1904. That year, the painting was one of the Chinese government’s entries at the St. Louis Exposition. Then, it was given to President Roosevelt, who had it added to the Smithsonian’s collections. The painting was shown in the Smithsonian’s Art and Industries Building before being loaned to a museum in Taiwan in the 1960s, where it remained for more than forty years.

Though it was halfway around the world, the painting presented a perfect companion to the original Empress Dowager photographs in the Freer|Sackler Archives that were featured in the exhibition Power|Play: China’s Empress Dowager. I suggested that we should have the painting returned to the Smithsonian and continue to tell the tale of international diplomacy through portraiture. Bringing it back was a big risk: we learned that it was badly deteriorated, and the elaborately carved, half-ton frame was in equally poor shape. Nevertheless, the painting was shipped to Washington, DC, and sent to our storage facility in Suitland, Maryland. When we unwrapped the painting, our worst fears were realized: the canvas was in dreadful condition with tears, cracks, peeling, and layers of grime and discolored varnish.

The Empress Dowager, larger than life.

The restored painting of the Empress Dowager, with MCI conservators Jia-sun Tsang and Inês Madruga.

Since hiring an outside conservator would have been prohibitively expensive, at the time I assumed that we would have to box up the painting and put it away for good. Fortunately, Suitland is also the location of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI). Senior Painting Conservator Jia-sun Tsang was brought in to evaluate the painting. Rather than walk away in despair, she immediately saw the painting’s potential as well as its historical importance. Miraculously, Jia-sun requested and was granted the time and resources necessary to rescue the painting. While she and conservation fellow Inês Madruga oversaw a raft of analyses and treatments, Senior Furniture Conservator Donald Williams managed the repair of the frame. Overall, some twenty-three conservators, interns, art handlers, technicians, and contractors quietly labored away to restore the empress’s portrait. Last month, the painting and its frame were united once more. Thanks to these heroic efforts, in time, we hope to share this historic artifact with the public.

View a slideshow of the conservation process. Learn more about this and other images of the Empress Dowager and their role in rehabilitating her international reputation.

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 and the Lost City of Aphrodisias

Aphrodisias by Ara Güler

The “Aphrodisias of Life,” photographed by Ara Güler

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

In 1958, Hayat magazine sent Turkish photojournalist Ara Güler to document the opening of the Kemer Dam in Aydin, Turkey. On the way back, his taxi driver got lost, resulting in the discovery of the ancient city of Aphrodisias, a cult center devoted to the goddess Aphrodite.

Because they could not find their way, Güler and his driver decided to spend the night in Geyre, a remote mountain village. While inquiring in the local coffeehouse about a place to stay, Güler noticed men playing card games on top of an ancient Roman column capital. Realizing that the town was built atop ruins, Güler awoke early the next morning and was led by children around the site, photographing the temple of Aphrodite, a hippodrome, and many sarcophagi. When he returned to Istanbul, he sent the images to the Architectural Review, and soon received a telegram from Horizon magazine requesting color photos and an article to go alongside the photo essay. Güler suggested Professor Kenan T. Erim as the author for this article. The New York University professor accepted the job and went on to devote his life to excavating Aphrodisias.

Aphrodisias by Ara Güler

The ruins of Aphrodisias, photographed by Ara Güler

When Erim began his excavations, archaeologists requested that the town of Geyre move two kilometers away. Güler has commented that the Aphrodisias he first visited was one of life: the people of Geyre put the relics to practical use in their daily lives. Now that the town has moved and Aphrodisias serves as a tourist attraction and excavation site, this “Aphrodisias of life” is gone. Güler says the site is now just history.

When he captured the vanishing town of Geyre, Güler accomplished one of his main photographic goals: to document change. Speaking about his images, Güler has said, “I have attempted to collect images of a vanished or vanishing way of life.”

Learn more about Aphrodisias and Güler’s effort to capture change in the exhibition In Focus: Ara Güler’s Anatolia, on view at the Sackler through May 4, 2014.

Next up in this blog series, we’ll take a look at Ara Güler’s work in the Freer|Sackler Archives. Follow the conversation using hashtag #AraGuler.

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.

Ara Güler: A Tale of Two Cities

Ara Guler in Aphrodisias, ca. 1964

Ara Güler in Aphrodisias, ca. 1964

Though best known for photographs of Istanbul, Ara Güler’s catalogue of more than 800,000 prints is also rich in images of landscapes and archaeological ruins, such as those he documented in Anatolia (Turkey’s Asian heartland) in the early 1960s. Throughout both groups of images, Güler manages to capture vanishing worlds. In Istanbul, traditional life is replaced by rapid development and urbanization, while in Anatolia the enemy is time, as illustrated by the crumbling of ancient monuments.

Güler sees himself as a visual historian who captures the life of his city as it undergoes change. His Istanbul has been the scene of popular protests, including the Taksim Square Massacre in 1977, a Labor Day rally that spurred clashes between political parties. More recently, he captured this past summer’s protests in Taksim Square about the proposed development of nearby Gezi Park, which elicited fear about the disappearance of Istanbul’s cultural heritage. Though more than twenty-five years apart, Güler captured both protests in dramatic photographs that verge on the cinematic.

Ara Güler, A family flees from the fray (Istanbul May Day Massacre) at Taksim Square 1977

A family flees from the fray (Istanbul May Day Massacre) at Taksim Square 1977

Despite the popularity of his images of Istanbul, Güler feels his real contributions to human history are his photographs of archaeological and historical sites. The diverse architecture of Anatolia not only features different traditions and styles, but it also represents the fusing of religions and peoples over thousands of years. Compared to his photographs of Istanbul, these quiet, often unpeopled images are universal meditations on time and history.

Today, Güler often can be found just a few blocks from Taksim Square in a café that occupies space below his archive. He always carries a camera with him, ready to add to the archive that contains hundreds of thousands of his images, including those of Antatolian architecture. A selection of these will be featured in the Sackler exhibition In Focus: Ara Güler’s Anatolia, opening on December 14.

Join the conversation with hashtag #araguler.

Something Fishy at the Freer House

Freer’s bill for fish, dated January 1, 1906

Freer’s fish bill, part two

Maya Foo is a curatorial assistant at Freer|Sackler, and curator of the exhibition Whistler’s Neighborhood: Impressions of a Changing London.

You can learn a lot about a person from their grocery bills.

Charles Lang Freer kept nearly every piece of paper that entered his house—including bills from the dairy and cheesemonger, the dry goods store, and other merchants—which shed fascinating light on his day-to-day living expenses, eating habits, and activities. For example, I came across a bill for 27 pounds of butter from August 1906. That’s a lot of butter for one man! What on earth was he eating?

This 1906 bill from George H. Giddey’s Headquarters for Oysters, Fish and Game, which is included in the Charles Lang Freer papers and is housed in the Freer|Sackler Archives, shows all of the seafood ordered by Freer’s in-house cook in December 1905. One can imagine what Freer ate for Christmas and New Year’s Eve dinners. Cioppino (Italian seafood stew), perhaps? Or maybe he combined his love for butter and fish and went with sole meuniere?

December 23:
3 ½ [pounds] Salmon
2 Lobsters
2 [pounds] White [fish]

December 26:
9 [pounds] Long Neck Clams
2 [pounds] White [fish]

Hopefully, he had company to help him eat so much seafood!

Best fishes for a happy holiday from Freer|Sackler.