Freer and Sackler Galleries (a Smithsonian Museum)

Not to be Missed

  • Sculptures of South Asia and the Himalayas
  • Peacock Room REMIX by Darren Waterston
  • Monkeys Grasping for the Moon by Xu Bing

The Freer Gallery will be closed for renovation until Summer 2017. The Sackler Gallery remains open.

Like the Hirshhorn Museum, the Freer and Sackler Galleries are based on the donated art collections of individuals: Charles Lang Freer and Arthur M. Sackler. Freer was a 19th-century railroad car manufacturer who collected both Oriental art and works by 19th-century American artist James McNeill Whistler. Sackler was a 20th-century physician and entrepreneur. He donated his collection of 1,000 pieces of Oriental art and objects to the Smithsonian in 1982, with additional funding to help construct the museum. The collections’ similar focus means that the two museums, connected by a short underground tunnel, are effectively combined for both visitors and research.

One of the first exhibits you’ll see at the Sackler is Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran – a collection of highly decorated gold, silver, and stone objects from Iran and surrounding areas between 400 BC and 700 AD. These are cups, plates, jewelry, and other everyday objects, done in precious metals and ornately rendered.

That exhibit ends in a large room that houses Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre. This Sackler exhibit is a companion piece to the Freer’s Peacock Room, which is closed through mid-2017. With that unavailable, here’s some background in order to make sense of this display: The American artist James McNeill Whistler spent much of his working life in London. While there, he was commissioned by Thomas Jeckyll to finish decorating a dining room he’s started for Englishman Frederick Richards Leyland.

Depending on whose view you take, Whistler either went a little overboard on the artistic flourishes, or he created one of the great examples of interior design ever seen.

Leyland thought the former and refused to pay Whistler, who was driven to bankruptcy shortly after, with Leyland as his main creditor. They both ended up better than Jeckyll, who literally went insane soon after seeing what Whistler had done to Dzhisdz room. Whistler so hated Leyland that he painted a caricature of Leyland as a peacock in The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre. Freer bought the room from Leyland’s heirs and had it transported in its entirety to the U.S. It’ll be on display when the Freer re-opens in 2017.

Waterston’s REMIX work takes its name from that Whistler caricature. The room is reimagined in the middle of its decay, with faded paint, broken ceramics, and damaged walls. What’s also great about this display is that you get to see Waterston’s art samples, color, and texture studies for his version, showing how much time, effort, and thought goes in to a display of this size and complexity.

Beyond the REMIX room is the hall of Sculpture of South Asia and the Himalayas. This area contains intricately carved religious statues of the area’s major and minor gods, and there are a couple of exceptional parts. First, the sculptures aren’t surrounded by glass or plastic, so you can get in close and see all of the detail work. Second, the explanations provided by the staff are excellent, giving you both the background on how these societies viewed this specific deity, but also the symbolism in the specific work you’re viewing.

While you’re here, duck into the middle of the Sackler and find the interior atrium. In the middle is a 90-foot sculpture called Monkeys Grasping for the Moon, by Xu Bing. The sculpture tells the story of a group of treetop monkeys who decided one night to try to capture the moon. They joined hands and tails to form a monkey chain down to the ground, where the found the moon’s reflection in a pool of water. (It’s supposed to be a warning about chasing illusory things. Or that lower primates lack depth perception. Not sure.)

Besides these permanent exhibits, the museums introduce several new topics per year.

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