S: The Delicate Art of Asia
BC: Cecilia Penaloza Johns Hopkins University 2012
FC: The Delicate Art of Asia
1: The Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art are perhaps the most beautiful in the Smithsonian complex. The buildings are located next to the gardens behind the Castle, the well-known center of operations for visitors at the mall in Washington D.C. The Freer|Sackler Museums are extraordinary. Both entities are dedicated to Asian Art, but the Freer became part of the Smithsonian as the bequest of Mr. Charles Lang Freer, an extraordinary collector and lover of Eastern cultures. Mr. Freer expressed strict conditions for the management of the museum’s collection, the most important being that the collection cannot be separated. Therefore, the Freer doesn’t loan or borrow items from its own or other collections, and it should be seen exclusively in the building designed for it, which opened in 1923. The Sackler museum holds the magnificent Asian art collection of Dr. Arthur Sackler, and it opened to the public in 1987. These museums are connected undergroud and are “ideologically linked through the study, exhibition, and sheer love of Asian art”. (citation: website) They are run as a single organization, but because of the special conditions imposed on the Freer’s holdings, the two museums maintain distinct profiles. The Freer is essentially frozen, and the Sackler collection is expanding.
2: Immediately entering the glass doors of the Sackler building, a security official receives the visitor and inspects bags looking for any prohibited objects. The gentleman in uniform uses a small rod, to avoid putting his hands inside people’s bags, and makes a visual inspection. Similar officers are in each of the museums’ entrances.
3: The receptionist is seated in a comfortable booth that receives natural light. He manages visitors’ enquiries about exhibits and directs the public to the galleries of the special exhibitions. His role is to be knowledgeable about the museums’ installations, and to welcome visitors. He advises visitors about hours of openings and events, and many times gives recommendations based on the amount of time visitors have available. The receptionists in the Asian Museums are volunteers who demonstrate special aptitude for customer service, great communication ability, and who possess a calm demeanor.
4: Interestingly, in the large open reception area there is a beautiful and exotic flower arrangement. On the pedestal supporting the decoration is a label crediting the work as created by “Smithsonian Horticultural Specialists”, indicating the participation of behind-the-scenes workers who would otherwise remain anonymous.
5: The guards are designated to serve in different areas or galleries and they make sure visitors can see the artwork under the best possible conditions. At the same time, they play a key role in maintaining the smooth operation of the museum galleries. For example, they can alert the main security office of any lighting issues, or accidents that might occur in the galleries. They are on the front line, and keep an eye on the number of visitors that galleries can comfortably accommodate. Their presence is very important; they are there to protect the art, and that is not always an easy task. For example, despite the fact that there are labels prohibiting the touching of objects, they frequently must remind visitors to keep their hands to themselves. It is an indulgence to the visitors to present objects unprotected by glass, but this requires staffing the galleries adequately. A guard should be prudent, respectful but firm when addressing visitors who show inappropriate behavior.
6: Perhaps the most prominent role in the galleries is the presence of volunteer-docents. In the case of the Freer|Sackler, the have completed studies in art history and museum studies, or are themselves artists interested in Asian Art. They offer tours to individuals or to groups as large as fifteen to twenty visitors. They usually select a group of galleries they want to highlight and proceed to speak in ways that contextualize the art and give historic background about styles, individual artists or movements, or periods. They are extremely well prepared; the Asian museums take pride in the intense and complete preparation they give to the volunteer docents. This is a smart decision because the docents are the ambassadors of the entire museum. Docents are inspired by the collection and the mission of the museums. They are eloquent and articulate and are always ready to receive questions from the public. The tours at the Asian museums last one hour, but this time limit can be modified on request.
9: This complex network of ceiling lights shows the careful work of museum exhibit designers and installers. They prepare the layout for the display of the objects and suggest a narrative which will lead visitors through the galleries in an optimum sequence."The designer has the 'eye' to project how all the ideas of others, and the selected objects, will appear in an exhibition." (Glaser & Zenetou, 1996. Museums: A place to work, p.94) This specific example comes from a gallery showcasing gold and silver objects from ancient Persia. The pieces are small, but their beautiful lines are highlighted by multiple sources of light. This allows for multi-faceted viewing, leading to enhanced appreciation of surfaces, textures, and volumes, from a variety of angles.
11: The Asian museums shop is very popular. It is an ample space with great light, despite the fact that it is underground. It is always attended by at least two sales people. The shop carries items related to the exhibits and, in some cases, offers items of a more general Asian theme. The counter in this photo shows items related to the famous Cherry Blosom Festival, which this year celebrates its centennial in Washington, D.C. The museum works the theme into the design of shirts, children’s books, and stuffed souvenir pandas with pink shirts. Offerings of Asian-inspired jewelry and delicate kimonos are the favorite among women, while the men go for books and office and desk accessories.