museum

Smithsonian National Museum of African Art by Todd Henson

Garden entrance to the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art is located in Washington, D.C., along the National Mall and just across from the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. These two museums are separated by a beautiful outdoor garden and share a very similar look to their exterior architecture. The majority of each museum is located below ground, and the two museums actually connect to one another through a lower-level hallway.

Beautiful stairwell in the National Museum of African Art

I love all of the Smithsonian museums I’ve had the pleasure to visit. Not only do they each contain amazing works of art, culture, or engineering, they also were built by very creative architects. There are so many fantastic elements to these buildings, and the National Museum of African Art is no different. I was drawn to one of the stairwells, lit from a skylight overhead and from an entryway above.

Contact by Nandipha Mntambo, viewed through an entryway

This museum contained artwork and cultural items from all over the African continent. Some were very old relics and others were more modern works of art. The piece that most stood out for me this trip was titled Contact, created by Nandipha Mntambo from Swaziland. It’s a sculpture cast from the artist’s body and covered in cowhide and cow hooves, and was inspired by a ship’s figurehead. The piece is beautifully displayed on a dark brown wall, with spotlights highlighting the artwork. I first viewed the piece through an entryway from another part of the museum, and I was immediately transfixed by this piece. Something about it spoke to me.

Contact by Nandipha Mntambo, displayed in the National Museum of African Art

We walked through several other rooms full of interesting and beautiful pieces. Below are images from some of the ones I was most drawn to.

Crest Mask, part of the Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection at the National Museum of African Art

The Crest Mask is part of the Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection, which is a current highlight of the museum.

Ethiopian shield made from leather and silver alloy

I’ve always been drawn to arms and armor from different cultures and times, so I was pulled in by the Ethiopian shield made from leather and silver alloy. It’s an amazing piece.

Silver coffee pot from the Sultanate of Oman

I loved the details and the shapes of the silver coffee pot from the Sultanate of Oman.

Swahili chest from Tanzania

Ornate Swaili chest from Tanzania

Swahili door and frame from Tanzania

In the corner of one gallery hall were an ornate chest displayed in front of a door in its frame. These were both Swahili pieces from Tanzania. I was fascinated by the details and the craftsmanship.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art is a fantastic museum. I highly recommend you visit if you have the opportunity. These Smithsonian museums really are a treasure, one I hope to revisit many times. Have you ever visiting the National Museum of African Art? Which pieces were you most drawn to?



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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?



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Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Company & Museum by Todd Henson

Working engine outside the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum (7 image HDR)

While visiting Portland, Maine, my father and I stopped at the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Company & Museum, off Fore Street, just down from the Portland Ocean Gateway, where cruise ships dock off Casco Bay. This was a small, but very interesting museum that also included a ride on their narrow gauge train.

Serenade of the Seas docked in Portland, Maine, with statue of George Cleeve (5 image HDR)

The ride began at the museum, where we had good views of Serenade of the Seas, a large cruise ship at dock. The train took us down to the Portland Ocean Gateway, where passengers from the cruise ship would enter and exit Portland. Some of the folks on the train were from the ship.

From the dock area the train reversed direction, passed by the museum, and then along the coastline paralleling the Eastern Promenade Trail, through Fort Allen Park. Around Fish Point we had very foggy views of Fort Gorges in the bay. One minute we could see the Fort, the next it was obscured in fog.

The train continued past East End Beach where we saw someone swimming in the cold water, and through the Eastern Promenade, stopping at the old railroad bridge. We were able to disembark from the train and walk around the area. The old bridge had crossed the water to the right side of the Burnham & Morrill Company factory, known for their B&M Baked Beans.

Looking through planks at old railroad bridge with Burnham & Morrill Company factory on distant shore

Old railroad bridge with Burnham & Morrill Company factory on distant shore

After we boarded the train it made its way back through the parks along the Eastern Promenade to the museum grounds. The view continued to change the entire ride, fog moving in and out. Some of the folks on the train were annoyed by this, but I found it fascinating to watch and photograph.

Luggage display in the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum

Interior of passenger train with stove (3 image HDR)

After the train ride we spent some time in the actual museum. It was small, but had a lot packed in the small space, including several full size narrow gauge train cars we were able to walk through.

There wasn’t a lot of light in the cars, but their interiors were very interesting, so I did the best I could to capture what I was seeing. I had to hand hold the camera since I didn’t have the tripod with me, so I raised the ISO on my camera to let me use faster shutter speeds, and captured a number of image sequences where I adjusted the exposure (shutter speed) between each image, holding the camera as still as possible between them.

I knew I would take each image sequence and combine it into a single high dynamic range (HDR) image, where I could better show the interior as I saw it. The camera just wasn’t capable of capturing what my eyes could see. One day cameras may have better dynamic range than our eyes, but for today we need to either decide what we want to compromise on, or capture multiple images and merge them into HDR. I don’t use this technique often, but it is fun and useful every once in a while. I worked to keep the images looking as natural as I could, trying to avoid the over-processed look of many HDR images.

Another interior of passenger train with stove (3 image HDR)

Interior of passenger train with individual seats (3 image HDR)

Horizontal view of passenger train interior (3 image HDR)

When we visited the museum it was located in Portland, but they told us it would soon be relocated to the town of Gray. If you’re interested in visiting be sure to check the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum website for the current status and location.

Train engine inside Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum



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