Smithsonian Arthur M. Sackler Gallery / by Todd Henson

Garden entrance to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Flower display in the Sackler Gallery entrance. These are a continuing gift of Else Sackler.

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art are the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art. These museums are located in Washington, D.C., along the National Mall. A few weeks back my brother and I visited some of the Smithsonian museums, the Sackler being one of them. The Freer Gallery was closed for renovations when we visited, and is scheduled to reopen in October 2017.

One of the first exhibits we viewed was a fantastic suspended sculpture, titled Monkeys Grasp for the Moon, designed for the Sackler by Chinese artist Xu Bing. It consists of twenty-one laminated wood pieces, all hung together to form a long chain hanging in one of the gallery’s stairwells. The wood pieces spell the word monkey in a dozen different languages. It’s a fascinating piece and beautifully displayed.

Side view of Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing in the Sackler Gallery

Looking down at Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing in the Sackler Gallery

The Sackler contains sculptures from all over Asia. Included here are a sampling of some of these wonderful pieces.

Shiva Nataraja (Lord of the Dance) at the Sackler Gallery

Indian Figure of Shiva at the Sackler Gallery

Head From a Figure of the Buddha at the Sackler Museum

Shiva Vinadhara (Holder of the Vina) at the Sackler Gallery

One of the major exhibits was titled Chinamania, and consisted of many pieces of Chinese porcelain. In the first room we see two large stupas built from many porcelain sculptures. The nearest stupa is called the Dark Stupa and the further one the White Stupa. They’re displayed in a dark room with fantastic lighting, focusing the eye right on the two stupas. I was really drawn to this display. So much detail, with all the individual porcelain pieces making up the larger sculptures. Fantastic!

Chinamania Dark and White Stupa at the Sackler Gallery

Chinamania White Stupa at the Sackler Gallery

Check out a video showing the creation of the Dark and White Stupa:

Next to the Dark and White Stupa is Filthy Lucre, an entire room that reimagines the original Peacock Room. The room, designed by Darren Waterston, is very dark with red and white lights shining in key locations. It is full of shelves, many collapsing, containing various porcelain pieces. It is a very dark and moody room.

Filthy LucrePeacock Room ReMix at the Sackler Gallery

Watch the story behind Filthy Lucre:

And here’s a behind the scenes video of the creation of Filthy Lucre:

Just beyond Filthy Lucre is a beautiful display of blue and white ceramics from China’s Kangxi period. These are also in a very dark room, but are arranged in lit shelves. It’s a very beautiful display.

Chinamania Blue & White Porcelain at the Sackler Gallery

The final display we viewed was the Turquoise Mountain exhibit, which was a room full of works created by modern Afghan artisans. The room opened with displays of woodwork, encouraging visitors to touch the work and see and feel the craftsmanship. There were a number of large carpets displayed, along with ceramics, jewelry, and various other crafts. It was a very beautifully designed room with a large central gazebo with cushioned seats.

Turquoise Mountain exhibit at the Sackler Gallery

I was most impressed with the lighting in the Sackler. Many of the displays and exhibits were just beautifully lit. Many were in dark locations with the light specifically focused on the display, drawing your attention right there. It was easy to lose track of everything else, even other people in the museum. Everything but the display faded into the background, leaving just you and the artwork. I really enjoyed this. We photographers can certainly learn a little about lighting by studying the ways displays are lit in museums such as this.

I would strongly encourage you to visit the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery if you have the opportunity. And if you have already visited let me know what you thought of it. What were the major exhibits when you visited?