This past spring I took a Chinese history class which, although outside of my general areas of interests, became one of my absolute favorite classes. Not only was my professor interesting and fun, but because it made such good counterpoint to my usual Medieval interests which threw both historical traditions into sharp relief. I ended up writing one of my final papers on the growth of Chinese painting over time (and ended up exceeding the page limit, with my professor’s permission, by ten pages) and, although I got experience with Chinese art and material culture at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum where I worked, I still wanted to see more.
So, luckily, I got a chance to visit the Freer Sackler galleries, the official Smithsonian Museums of Asian Art, in Washington DC with my dad. I count myself very lucky to live near the Smithsonian museums, which have made really great day trips with my dad and which have a huge amount of resources for someone interested in art history and material culture.
So, after taking the train into DC I met up with my dad and we got to explore the galleries. There are some really incredible works in the collections of both museums, although I didn’t get any pictures (I confess I feel very strongly that if you’re going to visit a museum in person you shouldn’t just view the objects through the lens of your camera, otherwise you might as well just stay home and browse the collections on your computer) so I’ll just go ahead and list some of my favorites:
The other incredible work in the museum is the Peacock room, which is an amazing instillation and confection (and it smells so, so good.) It used to be a dining room in the home of Frederick R. Leyland, designed by Thomas Jeckyll in order to display Leyland’s collection of Chinese porcelain. You can read more information about the room on the website here, but it really is a fascinating thing to see. I guess I’m a sucker for interiors.
Of course, not everything can be good in a museum and my main quibble is with a poorly implemented security system. In the Sackler galleries in a room devoted to ancient Chinese art there was a wonderful display of six graduated bells from the Zhou dynasty. They were hung above a platform to the left of a doorway. There was a proximity alarm arranged around the bells which is all well and good, except for the fact that it was apparently placed so that it would occasionally be tripped by someone turning the corner into the doorway. It was set off no less than four times while we were in the room and not once did a guard respond to the alarm (presumably, I assume, because it happened so often that the guard had just tuned it out.) Which is really a shame, should anything bad actually happen to the bells.
But getting back to good things, we finally exited the galleries and got to enjoy the Smithsonian garden. Luckily it wasn’t too warm out, which if you’ve ever been to DC you know is a blessing.
So, in summary I had a really great time at Freer Sackler. As always, I’m a big supporter of having access to physical objects and it’s really nice to have a great collection of Asian art in my back yard to see. Unfortunately the Freer gallery will be closed in 2016, so if you’re planning on visiting try to get there before that.