Happy Father’s Day!

Americans Strolling About; Utagawa Yoshifuji (1828–1887); Japan, Edo period, 1861; woodblock print, ink and color on paper; Gift of the Daval Foundation, from the Collection of Ambassador and Mrs. William Leonhart; S1991.150

Americans Strolling About; Utagawa Yoshifuji (1828–1887); Japan, Edo period, 1861; woodblock print, ink and color on paper; Gift of the Daval Foundation, from the Collection of Ambassador and Mrs. William Leonhart; S1991.150

Happy Father’s Day, dads! In this 1861 Japanese woodblock print by Utagawa Yoshifuji (1828–1887), the father is depicted smoking a cigar, a form of tobacco that was probably introduced to Japan by American residents of Yokohama. Tobacco had been smoked in elongated pipes since its inception by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. The Japanese word for Americans, Amerikajin, has been divided awkwardly into syllables so that the letters correspond as closely as possible to Japanese phonetic script (and to make them fit into the vertical frame).

See more fathers in our collections.

Whistler’s Portraits: Ripper, Vampire, or Sickert?

Walter Sickert; James McNeill Whistler, 1895; lithograph on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.108

Walter Sickert; James McNeill Whistler, 1895; lithograph on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.108

Beyond the famous portrait of his mother, James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) depicted dozens of people in his personal and public life. A search for “Whistler portrait” on Open F|S returns 299 hits, with subjects ranging from Annie, his niece, to art-world notables. We’ll examine a few fascinating figures who sat before Whistler’s canvas.

Was Whistler gazing at a serial killer when he sketched this portrait of Walter Sickert in 1895? Though the Jack the Ripper murders took place well over a century ago, a few authors recently claimed to have identified the culprit. They say that around when he was studying art with Whistler, Sickert (1860–1942) also was terrorizing London, committing the murders attributed to the legendary Ripper.

Scholars tend to dismiss these theories. We do know, though, that Whistler and Sickert had a turbulent relationship—which one author says left the latter unhinged. Sickert first met Whistler in 1882 and worked with him for several years, serving as the senior artist’s assistant. The two men each completed a portrait of five-year-old Stephen Manuel, Whistler’s distant relative, in 1885. Even then, contention seemed to exist between the artists. Sickert wrote to Whistler, a notorious perfectionist, that he needed to stop tinkering with the portrait; “The picture is finished,” Sickert admonished. Years later, he stated that “Whistler’s portrait was bad” compared to his usual work—and that Whistler had painted much too slowly for the child, “who was wearied with the number of sittings.”

Meanwhile, Whistler seems to have dismissed Sickert’s interpretation. After earning praise for his portrait at the Society of British Artists’ exhibition in November 1885, Whistler wrote to his sister-in-law (and Stephen’s aunt) that his version “certainly seems to be the favourite in all the papers—haven’t you seen?”

Left to right: Whistler's and Sickert's portraits of young Stephen Manuel.

Left to right: Whistler’s and Sickert’s portraits of young Stephen Manuel.

The “friendship” fully imploded in 1896, after Whistler found Sickert socializing with a man who was suing him. Sickert came by Whistler’s home to explain, leaving a calling card behind. Furious, the older artist scrawled the name of a famous traitor on the card and sent it back.

Sickert had already started moving away from Whistler stylistically, embracing the impressionist style of Edgar Degas, with whom he had studied in Paris. But while Degas delighted in ballerinas, Sickert was drawn to more sinister subjects. He often depicted prostitutes and was famously inspired by the murder of one, naming four of his female nudes after the Camden Town Murder of 1907. And he was fascinated by Jack the Ripper; he even completed a dark, shadowy oil of the killer’s bedroom.

But why do some writers allege that Sickert was Jack the Ripper? American crime writer Patricia Cornwell, who is perhaps best known for these claims, in part ties her reasoning to Whistler. The murders occurred in 1888, the same year that Whistler married Beatrice Godwin. Sickert “loathed” women, Cornwell asserts in her book Portrait of a Killer, as much as he “idolized, envied, and hated” Whistler. She adds: “For Walter Sickert to imagine Whistler in love and enjoying a sexual relationship with a woman might well have been the catalyst that made Sickert one of the most dangerous and confounding killers of all time.”

Then again, as Jonathan Jones of the Guardian points out, we could also make a compelling argument that Sickert was Dracula, “that other renowned Victorian monster.” Zoom into the lithograph, and look into Sickert’s eyes. Do you see a murderer, a vampire, or simply a British artist?

World Oceans Day: Songs of Travel

Europeans artists and missionaries traveling to Asia in the sixteenth century promoted Western ideas of religion and art. Some of the artwork created during the Mughal Empire (in present-day India) confirms the emperor’s interest in Roman Catholic imagery and European styles of representation, as seen in the border of this Islamic folio. Folio from the Gulshan (Rose Garden) Album. India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1600. Calligraphy by Mir Ali al-Katib (Bukhara, ca. 1540). Opaque watercolor, gold, and ink on paper. Purchase, F1956.12.

Europeans artists and missionaries traveling to Asia in the sixteenth century promoted Western ideas of religion and art. Some of the artwork created during the Mughal Empire (in present-day India) confirms the emperor’s interest in Roman Catholic imagery and European styles of representation, as seen in the border of this Islamic folio.

On World Oceans Day, listen to La Mar de la Musica: Songs of Departure and Return, a concert held at the museum in 2007. The Vozes Alfonsinas ensemble, based in Lisbon, Portugal, and led by director Manuel Pedro Ferreira, performed Renaissance songs of travel that reveal how overseas influences altered Portuguese music (and vice versa). Four-part vocal harmonies were complemented by the sounds of Renaissance-era instruments, including the rebec, vihuela, and theorbo.

Top: The ensemble Vozes Alfonsinas performs at the Freer Gallery’s Meyer Auditorium in 2007. (L-R): Maria Repas, soprano; Madalena Cabral, rebec; Susana Teixeira, mezzo-soprano; César Viana, recorders; Gonçalo Pinto Gonçalves, tenor; Nuno Torka Miranda, Renaissance guitar and vihuela; Vítor Gaspar, baritone; and André Barrosa, theorbo. Bottom: The ensemble performs for a family audience in the Sackler Gallery.

Top: The ensemble Vozes Alfonsinas performs at the Freer Gallery’s Meyer Auditorium in 2007. (L–R): Maria Repas, soprano; Madalena Cabral, rebec; Susana Teixeira, mezzo-soprano; César Viana, recorders; Gonçalo Pinto Gonçalves, tenor; Nuno Torka Miranda, Renaissance guitar and vihuela; Vítor Gaspar, baritone; and André Barrosa, theorbo. Bottom: The ensemble performs for a family audience in the Sackler Gallery.

As Ferreira, a music professor who has written dozens of papers and books on medieval music and culture, explained in the concert notes:

The conquest of the Atlantic Ocean altered not only the history of Portugal but also its music. Up until the seventeenth century, the Portuguese nation was intimately connected to neighboring Spain. The discovery and populating of the Atlantic islands and the exploration of the west coast of Africa left their mark on the Iberian musical panorama of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The musical influence of the colonization of the Americas became apparent later.

Just as wine returns from a journey with characteristics different from those it originally had, so Iberian musical culture, once tempered by the Atlantic experience, acquired new compositional flavors. This performance calls attention to these outside influences by presenting some written vestiges of this “music of the return journey,” the greater part of which, dependent on oral tradition, has perished in the vortex of history.

These figures from the border of an Islamic folio created in India about the year 1600 depict St. Anthony (left), Christ and the Ship of Salvation, God the Father (upper right), and the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and St. John

These figures from the border of an Islamic folio created in India about the year 1600 depict St. Anthony (left), Christ and the Ship of Salvation, God the Father (upper right), and the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and St. John.

This concert took place on July 26, 2007, in conjunction with our exhibition Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries. The podcast was made possible through support from the Thaw Charitable Trust, and audio preservation and editing of this recording were supported by funds from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee.

Wu School: Bamboo in Rain

Xiao-Xiang River after Rain; Xia Chang 夏㫤 (1388–1470); China, Ming dynasty, 1464; handscroll; ink on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment; Freer Gallery of Art, F1952.27

Xiao-Xiang River after Rain; Xia Chang 夏㫤 (1388–1470); China, Ming dynasty, 1464; handscroll; ink on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment; Freer Gallery of Art, F1952.27

It’s raining in DC (again). We must stay strong, much like this bamboo dipping into a river in Xiao-Xiang after a rainstorm, on view in Painting with Words. In Chinese tradition, the evergreen bamboo is honored for its strength, resilience, and ability to bend without breaking—qualities also associated with the ideal Confucian gentleman. Naturally straight and tall, bamboo mirrors the gentleman’s upright character. The hollow stems parallel his selfless humility, and their strong, solid joints represent his unbreakable integrity.

Xiao 瀟 and Xiang 湘 are the names of two rivers in Hunan province, central China, that have been famous since ancient times for their extensive groves of bamboo. Together, the names refer to an area known in antiquity as the kingdom of Chu 楚, which occupies a special place in Chinese literature and history.

Any reference to Xiao-Xiang immediately calls famous stories to mind. For example, according to early legend, a sage ruler named Shun 舜 (traditionally 2294–2184 BCE) died suddenly near the Xiang River. His two wives mourned on the water’s edge for days, their copious tears staining the nearby bamboo. Overcome with grief, they cast themselves into the Xiang and drowned, becoming goddesses of the river.

Word Nerd Wednesday: jinshi, juren, and jieyuan

Judging from the poems, these leaves were meant for a promising young man. He had passed the provincial juren exams with flying colors and was en route to the capital, presumably by boat, to take the national jinshi examinations to qualify for the imperial bureaucracy.

Judging from the poems, these leaves were meant for a promising young man. He had passed the provincial juren exams with flying colors and was en route to the capital, presumably by boat, to take the national jinshi examinations to qualify for the imperial bureaucracy.

Cramming desperately for finals week? Students past and present may find some solace in the fact that even China’s literary elite didn’t always ace their exams. As explored in the exhibition Painting with Words, centered on works by Wu School artists, several of these renowned painters, poets, and calligraphers didn’t excel at tests. During the Ming dynasty, the national jinshi (advanced scholar) examination, held every three years in the capital, qualified test takers for service in the imperial bureaucracy. Some artists, such as Xia Chang and Wu Kuan, distinguished themselves in the examinations and rose to high government offices.

Tang Yin (1470–1524) and Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) rank among the leading artists of the Ming dynasty, and they’re considered two of the Four Great Artists of the Ming Dynasty. Tang and Wen met as teenagers, and despite radical differences in character and temperament, they became close friends. In 1498, the eighteen-year-olds went off to Nanjing to sit for the provincial juren examinations. Tang was awarded first place (jieyuan); Wen Zhengming failed. Wen would never pass the jinshi examination, though he made multiple attempts. Regardless, he went on to become the unrivaled leader of the Wu School for much of its heyday during the first sixty years of the sixteenth century.

Traveling South; Tang Yin (1470–1524); China, Ming dynasty, 1505; handscroll; ink and color on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment Freer Gallery of Art, F1953.78

Traveling South; Tang Yin (1470–1524); China, Ming dynasty, 1505; handscroll; ink and color on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment
Freer Gallery of Art, F1953.78

While tests were no match for Tang’s brilliance, he had a wild side. He was given to self-indulgence (some would say decadence) and poor decision-making. While in the imperial capital in 1499 to take the national jinshi examinations, Tang behaved inappropriately—possibly involving drunken debauchery—and became embroiled in a trumped-up cheating scandal. Although he hadn’t actually done anything wrong, Tang was jailed, expelled from the exams, and sent home in disgrace, with the once-certain promise of a glorious official career now reduced to ashes.

Nevertheless, Tang’s status remained intact among the scholarly and wealthy elite of his native Suzhou. He lived and moved in the leading circles of local society, and, through their continuing patronage, he made a successful (if sometimes precarious) living through his writing and art for the next twenty-five years.

Turquoise Mountain: How Old is Afghanistan?

HOA-4

“How old is Afghanistan?” is a very difficult question to answer. The term “Afghanistan” was used as a geographic marker at least since the 1300s. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was a term used primarily by the Durrani Empire (1747–1826) to refer to the region around the Sulaiman Mountains, a range located east of present-day Afghanistan and western Pakistan. “Afghanistan” was thus a loosely defined geographic label for an area between “Hindustan” in the east, “Khurasan” in the west, and “Turkestan” in the north.

1771 Bonne Map of Persia (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan). Geographicus Persia bonne 1771. Reproduced from www.antiquemaps-fair.com.

1771 Bonne Map of Persia (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan). Geographicus Persia bonne 1771. Reproduced from www.antiquemaps-fair.com.

The first time that “Afghanistan” came to mean anything like our contemporary conception of the nation-state was in Soltan Mohammad Kales’s book Tarikh-e Soltani, which he began in 1865 but didn’t publish until 1880. During the period between when he wrote the work and when it was published, Afghanistan was beset by disputed claims to the throne of an area without defined borders. This would change with the rise of Amir Abd al-Rahman Khan (r. 1880–1901) and—most importantly—with the recognition by the British government of his suzerainty over “Afghanistan” in the aftermath of the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1879–1880). For the first time, Afghanistan was officially recognized as a territorial and political entity, largely as we currently understand it. Over the following fifteen years (through further border agreements made in 1887, 1893, and the controversial Durand Line demarcations of 1894–96), Afghanistan’s borders became fixed in the manner that they are portrayed on maps today.

Learn more about the history of Afghanistan and the traditions it’s reviving today in Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan, now on view.

Turquoise Mountain Artisans: Meet Matin

 

A descendant of generations of potters, Turquoise Mountain artisan Abdul Matin Malekzadah has joined us from Afghanistan to demonstrate his crafts. Watch his work, hear his story, and come in to meet him.

Malekzadah was born in Istalif, a village in rural Afghanistan. For four hundred years, Istalif was famed for its turquoise glazed ceramics, made using a natural potash glaze known as ishkar. In 1999, the Taliban destroyed many of Istalif’s pottery workshops, as well as knowledge of the distinctive ishkar glaze. Today, Malekzadah, head of the Turquoise Mountain Institute’s ceramics department and the director of Afghan Traditional Pottery, is one of the leading figures in the revival of Istalifi pottery, through which he is reintroducing the use of natural glazes.

Remembering Suzhou

A scholar's studio in Suzhou. Photograph courtesy of the author.

A scholar’s studio in Suzhou. Photograph courtesy of the author.

In December 2014, while I was working on Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty, I visited China’s Suzhou Museum to see an exhibition on Tang Yin, one of the city’s most celebrated artists and a key member of the Ming dynasty’s Wu School. I spent the first day studying the remarkable assemblage of Tang’s painting and calligraphy, including several works I had long wanted to see. On the morning of the second day, Mr. Pan, a young museum curator, came by my hotel to take me to a famous local garden before we would return to the exhibition in the afternoon. In the spirit of the Three Perfections—painting, poetry, and calligraphy—in which Tang Yin and his fellow Wu School artists excelled, I’ve written the following recollection of that day. 

Curator Pan darts down a narrow side street flanked with whitewashed walls, chatting amiably as we stroll to one of Suzhou’s famous gardens. In the Old City, early morning rituals are in full swing. Under the weak winter sun, brightly colored quilts and bedding are hanging out to air. The wok woman on the corner fires up savory crepes for eager passersby; stacked baskets of gleaming dumplings steam in the stall next door. Up the block, around the public well, bare-armed men and women scrub their laundry in tubs and buckets, sharing gossip of absent neighbors and the rumors of the day.

At a blind corner by the canal, another man cutting crosswise suddenly collides with my companion, butting heads. But their startled curses and momentary consternation quickly turn to wincing laughs and smiles, as old friends clap each other on the shoulder and shake hands. In fact, he lives around the corner now, just down the lane, and we’re invited to drop by for tea on our way back.

Curator Pan loves classical poetry. As we wander the latticed halls and jumbled rockeries of the garden he quotes the early masters, then offers up a sample of his own. He savors every syllable and rhyme, chanting loudly with proud satisfaction: “A new view with every step, Suzhou gardens are the best.” A pavilion, a bridge, fragrant shrubs scattered and massed for every season; tall twisted rocks dredged from nearby lakes and erected on end; maples in full flush and clusters of nandina berries, flaming red: all are reflected clearly in still pools of water. All were put here long ago just to catch our eye as we turn the bend.

Curator Pan texts his friend. Photo courtesy of the author.

Curator Pan texts his friend. Photo courtesy of the author.

We’ve taken our time, and we text Master Liang, the old friend we had encountered, to let him know we’re running late. Out the front gate and back the way we came, we cross the canal and hurry down the street to the left. A long block later, we knock at a set of wooden doors that front the lane. A young girl opens them, and across the courtyard our smiling host beckons us into his studio where the kettle for tea is already boiling. Master Liang, it turns out, is a teacher of the qin—the seven-stringed zither played by almost every classical poet since the time of Confucius—and soon we’re perching comfortably on sturdy stools inside his high-ceilinged classroom. Sleek-bodied black lacquer zithers hang from rings along the wall; woven mats and low polished tables line the stone-tiled floor.

With a practiced flourish Master Liang discards the first pot of tea and adds new hot water to the leaves: “It’s the second steeping that is best, and the only one to serve an honored guest.” Waiting, we talk of his teacher and mine, of the training and traditions that led us each to where we are. Master Liang asks his friend about his newly opened exhibition on the art of Tang Yin (1470–1524), one of the city’s most beloved poets and painters, and the real reason I am here. The show is the talk of the town, featured in all the papers; we tell him that visitors are packed four and five deep in front of every picture and he should probably wait a couple of weeks to come.

By now the tea is ready, and Master Liang pours us each a shallow cup. Its warmth in our hands and the subtle scent and flavor imbue us with a sense of calm. I tell them of a favorite handscroll in the Freer|Sackler: a short landscape by Tang Yin called Traveling South, which he painted in 1505 for his good friend, a young qin player who was setting out from Suzhou to make his way in the world. Then as now, the road was part of life for professional musicians.

Detail, Traveling South; Tang Yin (1470–1524); China, Ming dynasty, 1505; handscroll; ink and color on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, Freer Gallery of Art, F1953.78

Detail, Traveling South; Tang Yin (1470–1524); China, Ming dynasty, 1505; handscroll; ink and color on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, Freer Gallery of Art, F1953.78

Done in marvelously varied brushwork and subtle graded tones of ink, the scroll is one of the artist’s early masterpieces. After the painting, Tang inscribed two short poems:

On the river, springtime breezes blow the tender elms
I clasp my zither and see you off trailing long robes
If someone you encounter should appreciate your music
Cut some reeds where you are and build yourself a hut

Xi Kang long ago performed the Melody of Guangling
Silent for a thousand years its tonalities are lost
Today I have traveled to this place to see you off
That we may look for its tablature in the handbook

Inspired by my description, Master Liang moves to a nearby table where his qin is tuned and waiting. Selecting a favorite melody, he dedicates it to our accidental meeting: “Reading the Book of Changes at a Window Filled with Pines.” By which, of course, he means that if one reads the universe rightly, our meeting was no accident at all. Each note trembles in the chilly air, then warms as the next one huddles in, piling solid and broken lines one atop the other and transporting us momentarily to another place and time: here and now, there and then, all the same.

Master Liang performs. Photo courtesy of the author.

Master Liang performs. Photo courtesy of the author.

The piece ends with a flurry of harmonics, and we finish our replenished cups of tea. His first students of the day will arrive in half an hour, and since we’re meeting a colleague from the museum for lunch, we take our leave. Polite farewells at the door and grateful promises to stay in touch, and as we step across the threshold, returning to the rough-and-tumble, I am struck again by how much Suzhou, for all its modern veneer, remains unwaveringly true to itself. Poetry and painting, zithers and tea, rocks and gardens, crepes and dumplings: the pulse of life for more than five hundred years. Whether 1514 or 2014, certain things abide.

Word of the Day: zhiyin

Seven-stringed zither (qin), named Spring Breeze Forged inscription of Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) China, Ming dynasty, 1369–1644 Lacquered wood, water buffalo horn, mother-of-pearl, and silk strings Gift of Dr. Shing Yiu Yip Freer Gallery of Art F1999.8

Seven-stringed zither (qin), named Spring Breeze; forged inscription of Wen Zhengming (1470–1559); China, Ming dynasty, 1369–1644; lacquered wood, water buffalo horn, mother-of-pearl, and silk strings; Gift of Dr. Shing Yiu Yip; Freer Gallery of Art, F1999.8

As you stroll through the works in Painting with Words, you’ll see—and hear—the Chinese qin, a musical instrument that was ubiquitous in the cultural life of Ming dynasty China. Paintings from the period often show a retired gentleman walking in the mountains or along a stream, followed by a young servant carrying the man’s qin (pronounced “chin”). Viewers would understand that the subject of the painting would stop to play his qin whenever he felt so inspired by the nature around him.

In the center of this album leaf, titled "Walking by a Mountain Stream," a man is followed by a servant holding his qin, the quintessential musical instrument of the Chinese gentleman scholar.

In the center of this album leaf, titled “Walking by a Mountain Stream,” a man is followed by a servant holding his qin, the quintessential musical instrument of the Chinese gentleman scholar.

The qin music playing in the exhibition is a piece called “Flowing Water.” In 1977, when NASA sent Voyager I hurtling toward deep space, the satellite carried a sound disc with fifty pieces of music to represent earthly civilization. “Flowing Water” was the piece chosen to represent Chinese music.

The song is traditionally attributed to Boya, an ancient qin master. His friend Zhong Ziqi was deeply attuned to Boya’s music. When Zhong died, Boya destroyed his qin, declaring that he had no reason to keep playing now that no one understood him. Since then, the term zhiyin 知音, defined as someone who understands or appreciates one’s sound or music, has been used to refer to a dear friend.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, a poem on a handscroll titled Traveling South touches on Boya’s story:

On the river, springtime breezes blow the tender elms
I clasp my zither and see you off trailing long robes
If someone you encounter should appreciate your music
Cut some reeds where you are and build yourself a hut

We’re excited to welcome a present-day qin master to the museum this weekend. Bell Yung, emeritus professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the world’s leading authorities on the qin, will hold four free concerts from Friday through Sunday. He will play an instrument similar to the one on display in Painting with Words and will focus on pieces that evoke themes seen in the exhibition: plum blossoms, wild geese, river mists, and flowing waters.

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?

collage

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!