Museums

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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Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden by Todd Henson

Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, side facing the National Mall

My brother and I recently visited the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden along the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The Hirshhorn is the Smithsonian museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art and culture. Outside, between the museum and the National Mall, is their sculpture garden containing a wide range of sculptures, two of which I photographed. Inside is the museum, which contains several floors of artwork.

The main exhibit when we visited was a collection of Infinity Mirrors by Yayoi Kusama. This was popular enough it required (free) timed passes in advance, and they had already run out for the day. So we missed the Infinity Mirrors exhibit this time around, though I would still like to see it.

I think I still have a lot of room to grow and learn as an artist, and the Hirshhorn is a perfect reminder of that. There were many pieces of art I just didn’t get. I’m not nearly as drawn to much of the modern art out there as I am to the more traditional pieces you can find in the National Gallery of Art. But I do try to expose myself to all forms of art, both to learn from them and to try to appreciate them.

Voltri XV steel sculpture by David Smith in the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden

Sphere No. 6 bronze sculpture by Arnaldo Pomodoro in the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden

Untitled (Big Man) sculpture by Ron Meuck in the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum

I’ve included a small sampling of some of the pieces I found interesting. I really enjoyed the sculpture garden. I like the Japanese feel to David Smith’s Voltri XV steel sculpture. And I was fascinated by the detail in Arnaldo Pomodoro’s bronze sculpture, Sphere No. 6.

In the museum one of the very first pieces we viewed was Ron Mueck’s untitled sculpture of a Big Man, and it is a Big Man. There’s really nothing in the photograph to give scale to the sculpture. I should have zoomed out to show the sculpture in the context of the museum room it was in, but didn’t think of it. I was amazed at the detail of the piece. It very much looked alive.

One room we entered was completely dark, and on the far wall was a painting by Hamish Fulton titled Moonrise Kent England, 30 September 1985. As you can see the painting is of a full moon (a white circle) in a dark sky (a black wall).

Moonrise Kent England, 30 September 1985, painting by Hamish Fulton in the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum

One of my favorite exhibits this trip was in the inner hallway, which is a circular hallway facing the inner courtyard. The piece was titled World Time Clock by Bettina Pousttchi, and was a series of twenty-four photographs of clocks from twenty-four different time zones around the world. Each clock face has a different look, but all the photographs were created at the same local time, 1:55 PM.

World Time Clock by Bettina Pousttchi in the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum

World Time Clock by Bettina Pousttchi in the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum

I would certainly recommend the Hirshhorn to anyone who hasn’t visited, especially if you enjoy modern art. The exhibits change over time, so there should almost always be something new to see. I look forward to returning in the future. Let me know if you’ve ever visited the Hirshhorn and what your experiences were.



The resources below contain affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links. This is at no extra cost to you.