If you have ever walked down the National Mall in Washington, DC, then no doubt you have noticed some of the most famous museums in the world. The Smithsonian Museums of American History, Air and Space, Natural History and so on. However, there are two Smithsonian institutions that most people seem to ignore.
The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery are partner museums and proud members of the Smithsonian system. Contained within their walls are some of the most amazing and unique collections certainly in the city and probably in the country.
Both galleries highlight special collections of art and artifacts from Asia and the Near East. The Freer Gallery owes its existence to Charles Lang Freer, a railroad-car manufacturer from Detroit who gave to the United States his collections and funds for a building to house them.
The gallery houses a world-renowned collection of art from China, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, and the Near East. Visitor favorites include Chinese paintings, Japanese folding screens, Korean ceramics, Indian and Persian manuscripts, and Buddhist sculpture. A highlight is the Peacock Room, a dining room that was once part of a London townhouse. In 1876, Whistler lavishly decorated the room with a blue and gold peacock design. After the owner’s death, the room was brought to the United States and permanently installed in the Freer Gallery.
The Sackler Gallery is unique in that it is almost entirely below ground and connects to the Freer through this underground exhibition space. This gallery is a result of a gift of some 1,000 works of Asian art from Dr. Arthur M. Sackler, a research physician and medical publisher from New York City.
Among the highlights of his gift were early Chinese bronzes and jades, Chinese paintings and lacquerware, ancient Near Eastern ceramics and metalware, and sculpture from South and Southeast Asia.
Something the guidebooks won’t tell you is that the Sackler gift shop is without doubt the best in the city. I always head there in late November in order to find unique holiday presents for friends and family.
One of my fondest memories of the Sackler is right after September, 11 2001. A few weeks after the national tragedy, a group of Tibetan monks made their way to the Sackler where they spent the better part of two weeks constructing an elaborate mandala.
The Tibetan mandala is a tool for gaining wisdom and compassion and generally is depicted as a tightly balanced, geometric composition wherein deities reside.. As a meditation on impermanence, after days or weeks of creating the intricate pattern of a sand mandala, the sand is brushed together and placed in a body of running water to spread the blessings of the mandala.
It was an amazing thing to witness and I was personally touched that they took the time to construct such an elaborate masterpiece.
So, when you find yourself in Washington, do not make the mistake that millions make every year. Spend an afternoon at the Smithsonian Institution Freer|Sackler Galleries and consider yourself a Washington insider.