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Why is the Smithsonian Covered in Yarn?!

Scenes from last night's yarn bomb.

Scenes from last night’s yarn bomb.

If you pass by the Smithsonian Castle today or over the weekend, you may be surprised to see its gates and gardens wrapped up in red yarn. Why would the Freer|Sackler do such a thing? Read on to find out!

What are you doing?
We’re yarn bombing!

Yarn bombing involves covering the surface of large objects with knitted material—in this case, six miles of bright-red yarn. The yarn was knit in separate pieces, and then attached and connected to the gates, benches, lampposts, and other parts of the Enid A. Haupt Garden.

Why?
Opening this weekend in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is an installation by contemporary Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota, whose art uses everyday objects such as yarn, shoes, and keys to create room-filling works that have deep personal meaning. In her installation, called Over the Continents, she used 350 donated shoes and 4 miles of the same shade of red yarn used in the yarn bomb. Part of the Freer|Sackler’s Perspectives series of contemporary art, Shiota’s work will be on view for the next year. The yarn bomb, unfortunately, can only stay up through Labor Day.

How is the yarn bomb related to the exhibition?
Yarn is one of Shiota’s signature materials—it’s lightweight, flexible, and familiar—and she uses massive amounts to create something greater than its original form. As Shiota herself explained, “The threads are woven together. They become entangled. They tear. They unravel. They are a mirror of the emotions.” Red yarn, in particular, symbolizes the human body and states of being.

There’s also an element of community in Shiota’s pieces. She crowdsources many of the components, and she appreciates how people can come together for an artistic experience. For example, many visitors dropped by to watch her work during the public installation of Over the Continents on August 18–21. Similarly, the yarn bomb was created by many volunteers. It’s a fun way to alert people outside that there are dynamic things going on inside the Freer|Sackler.

In addition, the view of the gates and the castle is among the most iconic at the Smithsonian—and it happens to be right in front of the Sackler’s entrance.

Who is doing this?
The marketing staff at the Freer|Sackler started the yarn bomb, but once word got out, the project quickly grew to include more than 120 volunteers from around the Smithsonian and the DC area. People knit, helped to string up and attach the works, and spread the word among their friends and networks.

When was it done?
The yarn bomb was installed the evening of August 28 and revealed early in the morning on August 29, the day before Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota officially opened to the public. We had been knitting for about two weeks to create all of the pieces.

Are you making fun of the artist?
No, we certainly aren’t! We were inspired by Shiota’s use of simple, everyday materials, her involvement of community in her projects, and the vibrancy of her choice of color. The yarn bomb is a way to honor that outside the museums and to inject a little bit of the unexpected into everyone’s Friday commute or weekend visit to the Galleries.

What was the hardest part of the project?
The trickiest aspect was planning it. After we figured out what could be covered (benches, poles, fences) and what couldn’t (trees, flowerpots), we mapped out the surfaces and lengths of yarn we needed, working backward to convert it to lengths and then to skeins of yarn. It was comparatively easy to find the right shade of yarn, and easiest of all to learn to knit (which many of us did just for this project)!

What will you do with the yarn once it’s taken down?
We’re not sure yet! We hope to put the yarn to good use (it’s covered with a substance to make it fire resistant, so that presents some limitations). We’d love to hear suggestions, which you can tweet to @FreerSackler (hashtag: #perspectives) or post on our Facebook page.


Posted by in Contemporary Art, Japanese Art | No Comments

Larger Than Life: Restoring the Empress Dowager

The painting of the Empress Dowager, before, during, and after conservation.

The painting of the Empress Dowager, before, during, and after conservation.

David Hogge is head of Archives at the Freer|Sackler.

In 2011, the Sackler acquired a life-size portrait of China’s Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) painted by Katharine Augusta Carl in 1904. That year, the painting was one of the Chinese government’s entries at the St. Louis Exposition. Then, it was given to President Roosevelt, who had it added to the Smithsonian’s collections. The painting was shown in the Smithsonian’s Art and Industries Building before being loaned to a museum in Taiwan in the 1960s, where it remained for more than forty years.

Though it was halfway around the world, the painting presented a perfect companion to the original Empress Dowager photographs in the Freer|Sackler Archives that were featured in the exhibition Power|Play: China’s Empress Dowager. I suggested that we should have the painting returned to the Smithsonian and continue to tell the tale of international diplomacy through portraiture. Bringing it back was a big risk: we learned that it was badly deteriorated, and the elaborately carved, half-ton frame was in equally poor shape. Nevertheless, the painting was shipped to Washington, DC, and sent to our storage facility in Suitland, Maryland. When we unwrapped the painting, our worst fears were realized: the canvas was in dreadful condition with tears, cracks, peeling, and layers of grime and discolored varnish.

The Empress Dowager, larger than life.

The restored painting of the Empress Dowager, with MCI conservators Jia-sun Tsang and Inês Madruga.

Since hiring an outside conservator would have been prohibitively expensive, at the time I assumed that we would have to box up the painting and put it away for good. Fortunately, Suitland is also the location of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI). Senior Painting Conservator Jia-sun Tsang was brought in to evaluate the painting. Rather than walk away in despair, she immediately saw the painting’s potential as well as its historical importance. Miraculously, Jia-sun requested and was granted the time and resources necessary to rescue the painting. While she and conservation fellow Inês Madruga oversaw a raft of analyses and treatments, Senior Furniture Conservator Donald Williams managed the repair of the frame. Overall, some twenty-three conservators, interns, art handlers, technicians, and contractors quietly labored away to restore the empress’s portrait. Last month, the painting and its frame were united once more. Thanks to these heroic efforts, in time, we hope to share this historic artifact with the public.

View a slideshow of the conservation process. Learn more about this and other images of the Empress Dowager and their role in rehabilitating her international reputation.


Posted by in Chinese Art, From Conservation, From the Archives | No Comments

Remembering Collector Robert H. Ellsworth

Nandi; India, Chola dynasty, 12th century; bronze; Purchase, F1985.30

Nandi; India, Chola dynasty, 12th century; bronze; Purchase, F1985.30

Former head of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at Freer|Sackler, Paul Jett was with the museums for nearly thirty years.

Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, a preeminent collector and dealer of Asian art, passed away on August 3 at the age of eighty-five. Long a friend and benefactor of the Freer|Sackler, Mr. Ellsworth gave his collection of Chinese calligraphy to the museums and also supported many of their fundraising efforts. In addition, he was the source for a number of important works purchased by the museums, such as the beautiful bronze figure of Nandi pictured above. Mr. Ellsworth said he found this work being used as decoration near a swimming pool at the home of the owners of the Tandy Leather Company in Texas. (In the Freer|Sackler, the piece earned the nickname “The Tandy Nandi.”)

When I met Mr. Ellsworth, I was a young conservator studying a particular type of Chinese Buddhist bronze from Yunnan, one example of which was in his collection. I was certainly not known in the field of Asian art, and yet Mr. Ellsworth treated me with a gracious, generous cordiality that overwhelmed me. He allowed me to visit his home and study the bronze, and then went on to show me dozens of other bronzes from his collection. It was breathtaking and the first of many visits I made to see his collection and talk about art. A raconteur of the first order, Mr. Ellsworth always had a story to tell, about his collection, his life, or the people he knew. He could be incredibly charming, funny, and welcoming.

For years after my first visit, whenever Mr. Ellsworth saw an article or news about Yunnanese Buddhist bronzes, he would send me copies of the information. I was stunned once to learn that Mr. Ellsworth had bought one of these bronzes for about five times more than anyone had previously paid, but it took him just a month or two to sell it for a significant profit. Mr. Ellsworth not only knew the art market well, but he also seemed able to forecast it. Knowing the art market is one thing; knowing art is something else. I have always believed that, in his prime, Mr. Ellsworth had an eye for art that was better than that of anyone else in the field I ever met.

The museums have lost a good friend, and there are many more who will mourn and miss Robert Ellsworth.


Posted by in Chinese Art, From Conservation, South Asian and Himalayan Art | No Comments

Journey to the West: A 400-Year-Old Tale

"Journey to the West"

Scene from “Journey to the West”

Molly Thanrongvoraporn recently interned in the Department of Public Affairs and Marketing at Freer|Sackler.

There will always be a special place in my heart for Journey to the West. It’s a magical tale that has captivated both children and adults for centuries. Growing up in a half-Thai, half-Chinese household, I couldn’t escape its spell. How could anyone resist the fantastic journey to India undertaken by a Buddhist monk, an invincible magic monkey, a gluttonous pig monster, a humble fish monster, and a quiet dragon-in-disguise horse? Oh, the good old Saturday mornings of sitting around the table watching the Monkey King defeat demons. It makes me nostalgic!

Journey to the West (aka Journey) is one of those stories that brings together East Asian people of all ages, especially when you’re partly Chinese. My grandmother and I are able to discuss the same story even though we were born fifty years apart. As one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, Journey was adapted into many forms, ranging from Beijing opera to animation spin-offs. My earliest memory of it is the 1988 film Doraemon: The Record of Nobita’s Parallel Visit to the West. As I was growing up, television series, cartoons, and movies telling this tale were released every few years to people who knew the story by heart. Regardless, we all rejoiced with every new version we could find.

The one element of the novel that appears most frequently in popular culture is the Monkey King, Sun Wukong. Many actors have tried their hand at portraying the character. Just this year, Donnie Yen starred in The Monkey King, a new adaptation made with a big budget and plenty of special effects. Although the entire story is loosely based on Journey, Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball protagonist Son Goku is heavily influenced by Wukong. Goku has the same name (but in Japanese), rides on a cloud, carries a magic staff, and had a monkey tail as a kid.

My favorite Wukong is the one and only Hong Kong comedy king, Stephen Chow, who created a bombastically funny version in Jeffrey Lau’s A Chinese Odyssey series. Focusing on how one may suffer with love and lust, the loose adaptation traces Wukong’s journey of self-redemption from an arrogant lying individual to a faithful follower of the Longevity Monk. Chow’s Wukong has set a high standard for any future adapters of the tale.

Catch Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons on Friday, August 15, at 7 pm, and A Chinese Odyssey Parts I and II at 1 and 3 pm on Sunday, August 17, at the Freer. These films conclude the 19th Annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, cosponsored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, Washington, DC.

Read Molly’s previous post on Hong Kong films.


Posted by in Film | No Comments

Whistler, Hiroshige, and a Fortunate Find

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl; James McNeill Whistler; 1864, oil on canvas; Tate Britain, London

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl; James McNeill Whistler; 1864, oil on canvas; Tate Britain, London

Margaret MacDonald, professor emerita of art history at the University of Glasgow, is guest curator for An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, on view at the Sackler through Sunday, August 17.

Luck plays its little tricks on the hardened researcher. Sometimes I try for hours, weeks even, to crack a particular puzzle. And then something exciting—and vital—turns up out of the blue. I am based in glorious Glasgow, so I rely on Scottish libraries, the Whistler Collection, university archives, and of course, the Internet to learn more about artist James McNeill Whistler. However, once or twice a year, I spend a frenzied week researching in London, where the British Library and Victoria and Albert Museum are high on my list of beloved places. They even have good cafes.

Today’s tale involves the V&A. I had arrived early, stoked up with Kensington cafe coffee and croissants. I dumped my bags in the cloakroom and loaded everything needed in a see-through plastic bag, which ensured I couldn’t nick the Whistlers. A spacious modern print room awaited with comfy chairs and online catalogues. A curator came over to gossip…bliss. I’d requested to see some of the museum’s earliest acquisitions of Whistler etchings, but the delivery was a bit slow that day, so I whiled away the time on the museum’s online collections. Somehow, I strayed further and further into the website. I entered various names and words in the search box. Apparently, a huge collection of Japanese woodcuts, including fans, had been put online. Serendipity, second sight, or sheer luck came into play at this point. I entered ‘Hiroshige River Fan’ and a gorgeous Hiroshige work appeared. I had fed in the right words and—open sesame—the wonders of Hiroshige’s world were revealed. I think I stopped breathing.

The Banks of the Sumida River, from the series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital; Utagawa Hiroshige; Japan, Edo period, 1857; woodblock print; ink and color on paper; Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Banks of the Sumida River, from the series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital; Utagawa Hiroshige; Japan, Edo period, 1857; woodblock print; ink and color on paper; Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The image I saw before me was The Banks of the Sumida River, a woodcut from Hiroshige’s series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital. The scene it depicts is strikingly similar to one within Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl (pictured at top of this post). For this work, Whistler’s mistress, Jo, posed in a white muslin summer dress, standing by a mantelpiece in his house in Lindsey Row, her face reflected in a mirror. Blue-and-white porcelain adorned the fireplace, and Jo held an Asian fan or hand-screen. Until recently, this fan had not been identified. Indeed, I had thought it perhaps showed a woman holding a parasol. It appears that I was looking at it upside down! The fan (when looked at the right way up) shows a boat with a sail billowing in the wind, on a broad river of deep blue with green waves. In the distance are two more boats with rectangular sails and, on the left, several barges. The spacious composition and broad bands of rich colour are striking.

The print, dating from 1857 (Hiroshige died the following year), would have traveled from Japan to London via ship, on a journey that could have taken up to seven years. It was probably trimmed and mounted for sale in Britain as a fan or hand-screen, used as a shade against heat or light. Although there may have been many impressions of this uchiwa-e (rigid fan print) in different colour ranges, few appear to have survived.

The V&A print is not literally Whistler’s fan. Along with never being mounted within a frame as a fan, the V&A print has a sky of deep blue at the horizon, where Whistler’s was red. In addition, Whistler’s collection of Japanese and Chinese objects—prints and porcelain and all—was sold when he went bankrupt. The bankruptcy sale, held by Baker & Sons in 1879, featured “Japanese hand screens,” possibly including Jo’s fan. The V&A fan came from another collection and entered the museum in 1886. However, the two prints are dated from the same time and probably traveled on the same ship.

On a later trip to London, I was able to arrange to see the fan print itself, a woodcut of great beauty. The print shows the Sumida River, with Mount Tsukuba on the horizon, from the middle of the Azuma Bridge, the northernmost of four bridges spanning the river. To the left is the Shoten Shrine at Matsuchiyama, and beyond is the entrance to the San’yabori Canal, whence travellers walked along the Nihon Embankment to the Yoshiwara licensed pleasure quarters. To the right is the Mukojima district, with steps leading down to the river and the Takeya ferry crossing, behind which, over the embankment, the torii gate of the Mimeguri Shrine is visible.

The scene makes a fascinating comparison to the approach up the river Thames to the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens, which were very close to Whistler’s house on Lindsey Row, on the same north bank of the river (more or less visible from the front room where the Little White Girl was painted). In subject, composition, and detail, prints such as Hiroshige’s had a strong influence on Whistler, not only as accessories but in composition and subject.

By the time I saw the woodcut, it was long past the date for adding works to the Whistler show, but given its importance and relevance, we were able to make a case for its inclusion. The V&A generously agreed to lend the work. The fan had pride of place in the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery and is currently on view in An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery…but only for a few more days. I strongly advise everyone to go and see it while you have the chance!

View a gallery of images from An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, on view through Sunday, August 17.


Posted by in American Art, Japanese Art | No Comments

Whistler and the British Music Hall

The Manager's Window, Gaiety Theatre; James McNeill Whistler; 1896; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.76

The Manager’s Window, Gaiety Theatre; James McNeill Whistler; 1896; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.76

Michael Wilpers is public programs coordinator at Freer|Sackler.

Musical ideas abound in the work of American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), whose art is more abundantly represented in the Freer|Sackler’s collections than at any other museum in the world. Rather than use conventional labels for his works (such as “portraits” or “landscapes”), Whistler instead called them “harmonies,” “symphonies,” “nocturnes,” “variations,” and “arrangements.” But the connections between Whistler and music extend beyond these labels and their associated aesthetic concepts.

The London of Whistler’s time was virtually consumed with the burgeoning form of entertainment called “music hall,” a variety-show genre comparable to American vaudeville and French cabaret. When Whistler arrived in London in 1859, the Canterbury Music Hall had just been converted from a 700-seat establishment to one that held 1,500 guests, featuring tables and chairs for dining, ornate chandeliers, and a capacious mezzanine. By 1875, more than 375 music halls were open in greater London, ranging from modest taverns to massive entertainment centers, all with music and comedy to accompany their beer and food. Perhaps it is not unreasonable to wonder if Whistler’s famous night scenes (nocturnes) were so lacking in people because they were all at the music halls!

Along with sentimental and patriotic tunes, music hall’s trademark and biggest draw were its comic songs, replete with double entendre, tongue-twisters, and other risqué wordplay evidenced in such classics as “Pheasant Plucker” and the later “You’ve Got the Right Key but the Wrong Key Hole.” Such lyrics contributed to a culture of wit and conversational cleverness—of which Whistler was a proud champion. His playful, public conversations with Oscar Wilde were the talk of the town; he once famously claimed to have perfected the “gentle art of making enemies.” In addition, one might be remiss in considering Whistler’s relationship to music hall without factoring in his many romantic liaisons, which were certainly not inconsistent with the genre’s bawdy themes.

Whistler also represented music hall directly in his artwork. The Freer collection includes several of his lithographs showing the exterior of the Gaiety Theater (pictured above), which opened in 1868 with a seating capacity of 2,000. In 1877, Whistler executed a portrait of one of the Gaiety’s child-stars, Connie Gilchrist, who was just twelve at the time. She became famous for her jump-rope dance routine, “taking the fashionable frequenters of the place by storm,” the Times noted, “her ingenuousness capturing all hearts, especially in contrast to the precocious cynicism of her stage dialogue.” Many artists and photographers created portraits of Gilchrist, who married well above her station, like so many of the “Gaiety Girls.” Of course, Whistler gave his portrait a musical name—Harmony in Yellow and Gold—with the overarching colors punctuated in three spots by the red of her lips and the two jump-rope handles.

The Freer Gallery celebrated the venerable music hall tradition this summer with a performance by the British Players, a revival troupe based in the Washington area. In a nod to Whistler’s nocturnes, the troupe included its own arrangement of “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’,” a big hit of the very early 1900s. The Washington Post called the Freer show “a bawdy good time … full of bad jokes, genuinely funny acts, and naughty songs.” The critic continued, “The show went off with enormous good humor and energy, suggesting that the dark and somewhat spooky London that Whistler dwelt on must have had its lighthearted music-hall moments.”

The British Players performing at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The British Players performing at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The British Players give a series of charity performances every December and June at Kensington Town Hall in Maryland, under the patronage of Lady Kensington herself. Their shows come complete with the requisite “chairman” (a wise-cracking master of ceremonies), bow-belles, the Chord Busters vocal quartet, the Edwardians (ensemble choir), can-can, and plenty of food and drink.

For excellent material about music hall—its history, theaters, entrepreneurs, star performers, and sheet music covers—visit the Victoria and Albert Museum’s web feature and be sure to check out the related content.

A look at Whistler’s ode to a rapidly changing London, An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, remains on view in the Sackler through August 17. #americaninlondon


Posted by in American Art, Performance | No Comments

Can Your Tea Jar Do This?

The Art of Tea

Meet Chigusa, the Chinese tea jar that earned a dedicated following in Japan. It’s the star of the exhibition Chigusa and the Art of Tea, on view in the Sackler to July 27Diaries of tea events reveal what the writers admired about Chigusa, which appears alongside other cherished objects—Chinese calligraphy, Chinese and Korean tea bowls, Japanese stoneware jars and wooden vessels—used during a formative era of Japanese tea culture.

This gif shows Chigusa with and without its accessories, which include a mouth cover made of antique Chinese fabric, a net bag that enclosed the jar’s body, and sets of thick silk cords. All were chosen to honor Chigusa’s prominent status.


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Posted by in Chinese Art, Japanese Art | No Comments

Hong Kong Films: The Vampire Strikes Back

Twin ghosts from the movie "Rigor Mortis"

Twin ghosts from the movie “Rigor Mortis”

Molly Thanrongvoraporn is an intern in the Department of Public Affairs and Marketing at the Freer|Sackler.

They jump. They bite. They’re scary and hilarious at the same time. The Jiangshi, or hopping vampires, seen in Mr. Vampire are always up for some brutally comical blood-sucking. The success of this film, directed by Ricky Lau in 1985, made Jiangshi (Goeng-si in Cantonese) a popular sub-genre of horror films in the following decade.

Of all the qualities that go into making a Jiangshi movie, humor is number one. Jiangshi films employ slapstick physical comedy, especially when the vampires hop into kung fu moves. When I was younger, I played Jiangshi vampire with other kids back home in Bangkok, Thailand. The one who was “it” jumped around with his or her arms raised zombie style to catch the fleeing humans. In our children’s game, the humans tended to outrun the vampires, but not so in the Jiangshi movies. If onscreen characters aren’t speedy, they need one of the following: kung fu skills, a Taoist protective tag, or the ability to hold their breath for a long time—the Jiangshi vampire can’t see prey that’s not breathing. This contributed to many funny scenes in the films, and my friends and I would hold our own breath while we sat in the audience. Jiangshi took the scary out of horror films and replaced it with a physical comedy that younger audiences appreciated.

After the 1990s, Jiangshi movies disappeared from the cinema marquees in Asia. Finally, in 2013, Juno Mak decided to bring the hopping vampire back to the silver screen, this time darker and scarier than before. His film Rigor Mortis is a story of a bankrupted actor who moves into a rundown apartment, only to find himself in terrifying circumstances. A critical and commercial success, Rigor Mortis won Best Supporting Actress (Kara Hui) and Best Visual Effects at the 33rd Hong Kong Film Awards, while Juno Mak was nominated for Best New Director. Earning more than ten million Hong Kong dollars, Rigor Mortis is proof that the Jiangshi vampire never really fades away for East Asian audiences. Newer trends of horror films may come and go, but the Jiangshi vampire sleeps quietly, waiting to return and shake us all again with its hopping.

See Mr. Vampire and Rigor Mortis back to back on Sunday, July 27, as part of our Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, cosponsored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office.


Posted by in Film | No Comments

You Ask, We Answer: Why is American art in the Freer|Sackler?

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, 1864, James McNeill Whistler, F1904.75a

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen; James McNeill Whistler; 1864; F1904.75a

Howard Kaplan is museum writer at Freer|Sackler.

This is a question we are often asked, and it makes perfect sense. We’re the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art—yet we have important holdings of American art from the late 19th century, including the world’s greatest collection of works by James McNeill Whistler, along with works by his compatriots Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Abbott Handerson Thayer, and Dwight William Tryon. In the Freer, you can move from a gallery that features Japanese screens and enter a room that displays Whistler’s poetic Nocturnes, while the Sackler currently features a landmark exhibition of Whistler’s works alongside its many galleries of Asian art. How can that be?

For the answer, I have to take you back to 1890, when Detroit businessman Charles Lang Freer paid an unannounced call to Whistler’s London studio. The two men became friends and over the next thirteen years, Whistler helped Freer amass what the artist called “a fine collection of Whistlers!!—perhaps The collection.” When Freer observed similarities between Whistler’s art and Japanese prints, the artist encouraged him to visit Asia, where, he explained, Freer would find artistic treasures—early chapters in what Whistler called “the story of the beautiful“—from which his own work was descended. Freer thus conceived of his museum in large part as a monument to Whistler and the “points of contact” between East and West and ancient and modern that he believed the artist’s work embodied.

Freer ultimately would collect more than one thousand works by Whistler, including Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, an opulent dining room painted by Whistler in 1876–77, and others displayed in the Sackler exhibition An American in London: Whistler and the Thames. By 1906, Freer also had amassed a considerable amount of paintings and ceramics from Japan and China and artifacts from the ancient Near East, selections of which can now be viewed near the Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery of Art.

Learn more about American art in our collections and An American in London, on view through August 17. You can also explore the Peacock Room in our free iPad and iPhone app. On Thursday, July 17, the Peacock Room shutters will be open from 12–5:30 pm. Come experience this extraordinary room in a new light!


Posted by in American Art | No Comments

X-Ray Visions

Fused mosaic plaque; Ptolemaic dynasty to Roman period; 100 BCE–100 CE; Egypt; F1909.506

Fused mosaic plaque; Ptolemaic dynasty to Roman period; 100 BCE–100 CE; Egypt; F1909.506

Ellen M. Nigro is an intern in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at Freer|Sackler.

In 1909, Charles Lang Freer made his third trip to Egypt and bought a collection of nearly 1,400 ancient glass beads, vessels, and mosaic fragments in Cairo. The objects are mainly XVIII dynasty, Ptolemaic, and Roman period Egyptian pieces, but include some later Islamic fragments. Although the collection varies a bit in geographic origin and time period, all the pieces are colorful examples of fine craftsmanship, from intricate millefiori inlays to cast amulets. Freer shipped the collection straight to the Smithsonian in 1910; since then, some of it has been exhibited, but the vast majority was left unstudied. However, the current installation The Nile and Ancient Egypt features selected glass vessels from this collection. Concurrently, a scientific study of the glass collection using x-ray fluorescence (XRF) is helping researchers at Freer|Sackler understand better the elemental composition of the objects.

This image was taken with the XRF spectrometer camera of the glass object at top.  The instrument allows us to focus the x-ray beam using a laser and video camera.

This image was taken with the XRF spectrometer camera of the glass object at top.

XRF is a non-destructive, scientific, analytical method that is capable of detecting inorganic elements with certain atomic weights. The colorants in glass are mainly transition metals (those found in the middle of the periodic table such as manganese, iron, cobalt, and copper); therefore, XRF is a good way to learn about what materials the ancient glassmakers used to make the vibrant colors in this collection. (It is not able to determine chemical structures or detect organic compounds, chemicals mainly composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.) XRF uses an x-ray beam generated inside the instrument to displace inner shell electrons in the elements of the analyzed material. Higher energy electrons then cascade down to lower energy levels and release energy in the form of fluorescence. As this fluorescence is released, the instrument detects the signals and creates a line graph on a computer program, where the analyst can see the results. The x-axis represents the energy of each signal in kiloelectronvolts (keV), while the y-axis represents the intensity in number of pulses. Since each element produces a characteristic set of peaks at specific energies, the scientists can determine what elements are present in the material.

The graph gathered from the blue area in the fused mosaic. The cobalt peak is highlighted because it is likely the main colorant.

The graph gathered from the blue area in the fused mosaic. The cobalt peak is highlighted because
it is likely the main colorant.

Knowing the colorant can also provide clues about the time and culture in which a piece originated. For example, if a white glass produces strong antimony and calcium peaks, it could be colored with calcium antimonate, a common white colorant in XVIII dynasty Egypt. But if a white glass sample produces prominent tin peaks, the results suggest the colorant could be tin oxide, a material used starting around the fifth century CE. At the end of this XRF survey, the scientists at Freer|Sackler will have a much better understanding of the elemental composition of these glass objects. Although the results from XRF alone only give a small glimpse into the history of these objects, this study can help guide further scientific and art historical research.

Learn more about Conservation and Scientific Research at Freer|Sackler and check out another blog post on x-ray art.


Posted by in From Conservation | No Comments