A Day Trip to the Freer and Sackler Galleries in D.C.

The courtyard of the Freer and Sackler Galleries.

I took a break today from complaining about grants and Wikipedia to go to the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, D.C. The museum itself isn’t huge, but it’s part of the monstrous Smithsonian complex and actually sits right on the Mall to the right of the Smithsonian castle building. I like to go to other museums, especially Smithsonian ones, to get ideas for exhibits for my own little museum. More often than not, though, I come away with more things to avoid than to imitate.

The Freer and Sackler galleries mostly showcase Asian objects, and I went specifically to see their exhibit on Islamic art. As usual with the Smithsonian, I came away slightly disappointed. First of all, it’s not really art from the “Islamic world,” unless Iran encompasses the entire Islamic world. I think Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Indonesia, among others, would agree that it doesn’t. The exhibit should really have been called “Shia World Art.” All of the objects were interesting, if a little pottery-heavy–like the entire museum, actually. Their examples of early Qur’anic manuscripts were the real draw of the exhibit for me, which was three objects. After that…well, it was all very pretty but not incredibly interesting.

I was definitely not a fan of the way the objects were displayed, either. The galleries seemed so gray, sterile, and empty. Maybe this is what cultured art people like, but I found it a little dehumanizing. Also as usual with the Smithsonian, I was uncomfortable with the extreme security presence. Yes, yes, yes, I understand why it’s there. I’m really not complaining about it. It’s just not my kind of environment. I like places where you can explore, relax, create some harmless mischief, look through some drawers, and peek into back rooms–all things you can usually do at small museums. Try that in D.C. and you’re likely to end up in Gitmo.

Most Smithsonian collections used to be shoved into this building!

In fact, the experience reminded me of Bill Bryson’s complaints about the Smithsonian in his travel memoir The Lost Continent. He remembers coming to the Smithsonian in the 1950s when almost all the Institution’s holdings were shoved somewhat unceremoniously into the castle building and the Natural History Museum. Instead of the dry, overly-planned and extremely expensive exhibits like the ones out now, there were haphazard collections of knick-knacks in no particular order. Japanese armor was crammed into a case in one hallway,and piles of arrowheads languished in a case just around the corner. He liked that Smithsonian better, and although my parents weren’t even born yet in the 1950s, I’m pretty sure I would have, too. The playfulness, the adventure, the MAGIC is sort of gone.

In fact, as an artifact of that less-professional-but-more-fun period in America’s museum history, he recommends the Ford Museum in Michigan, which still had rooms and rooms full of shiny and exciting things in no particular order. I don’t know if they still do, but I certainly hope so.

I always try to remember this advice when planning exhibits at my museum. It’s tempting, especially when you’ve worked very long with a collection, to present really detailed facts and histories, but I think it’s a temptation best avoided. Ultimately, it’s more important to foster curiosity in visitors. It’s sort of like magazines that present long, detailed essays on topics. Look, TIME, if I want to read in detail about Buddhist monk communities in Dearborn, Michigan or Amish quilters, I’ll pick up an actual BOOK. A magazine’s job is to give me a quick and highly interesting read on something, to pique my curiosity so I can explore further if I want to. It’s the same with a museum like the Smithsonian that tries to accomplish too much in unnecessary detail. Get me interested first, please.

Ultimately, I’m glad I went. I like seeing what other people are doing with exhibits. And finding things to avoid is just as important as finding things to emulate.

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