Patterned paper lanterns, a vast maze of Asian food stalls and the sounds of traditional Middle Eastern songs greeted visitors of the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery during their grand reopening celebration last weekend. The two-day celebration, “IlluminAsia: A Festival of Asian Art, Food and Cultures,” featured interactive programming throughout the galleries in addition to highlighting a number of new and updated exhibitions in the remodeled space.

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The Freer Gallery welcomed visitors for the first time since January 2016, when the gallery closed for what was the museum’s second large-scale renovation in its 94-year history. Some highlights of the renovations include improved gallery lighting and updated media and technology systems that allow for more interactive exhibits. Updated climate control systems were installed to better protect the collections housed in the galleries.

The adjacent Sackler Gallery, which first opened in 1987, also celebrated its reopening during “IlluminAsia.” After closing for a series of minor renovations in July, the Sackler Gallery welcomed guests to a number of new exhibits as well as updated permanent collections.

The Freer and Sackler Galleries are home to the Smithsonian’s premier collection of Asian art, featuring works from East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East. The galleries also house a number of American works, and the renovated space seeks to showcase the connection between Asian and American art.  

The renovations will allow the galleries to more effectively incorporate media and collaboration between various artists into the exhibits, said J. Keith Wilson, associate director and curator of Ancient Chinese art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries. Wilson said that these technological updates will allow visitors to better interact with certain collections, including a new exhibition entitled “Resound: Bells of Ancient China.” The exhibition features several touchpads that guests can use to hear digitally remastered contemporary interpretations of ancient Chinese songs.

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“We have this amazing collection of Chinese bells that span almost 2000 years. I thought that by developing an interactive exhibition using these Bronze Age objects in a kind of performance, it might be more interesting,” Wilson said. “I wanted to bring the whole idea into the 21st century, and since we don’t know what ancient Chinese music actually sounded like, I thought, ‘why not ask some contemporary composers to imagine what they could have sounded like?’, and that’s the idea of this soundscape.”

Another new exhibition is entitled “Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice Across Asia.” This exhibition, which features a collection of Buddhist artworks from Afghanistan, India, Nepal, China and Japan, recreates a Tibetan Buddhist shrine and a Sri Lankan meditation stupa, a religious monument that holds sacred relics. Rebecca Bloom, a current fellow in the Freer and Sackler Galleries and one of the curators of this new exhibition, said that the renovation has allowed the gallery to recreate these traditional places of worship.

“There are really nice juxtapositions between the objects and these immersive spaces. We have a section dedicated to cross-cultural connections and pilgrimage. This is a space that restores context to objects that are typically isolated in history. We have organized them in a way that is reflective of Tibetan Buddhist hierarchies, restoring the traditional relationships between object and practitioner,” Bloom said.

One of the most anticipated additions to the galleries is the installation “Terminal,” by contemporary Indian artist Subodh Gupta. According to the Smithsonian Institute’s press release about “Terminal,” this particular installation celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Sackler Gallery’s opening while also welcoming visitors to the grand reopening of both the Freer and Sackler Galleries.

“Terminal,” which is located in one of the Sackler Gallery’s main foyers, is the first exhibit that greets many visitors as they enter the gallery. The installation draws inspiration from the spires often seen atop places of worship in Indian cities. In “Terminal,” these spires, which Gupta recreates without any allusions to specific religions, range from 1 to 15 feet tall and are staggered throughout the exhibition space, connected by white threads to give the overall impression of a complex web.

The “IlluminAsia” grand reopening also marked the reopening of several permanent and returning exhibitions. Some of these updated exhibitions, including “Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt,” also benefitted from the gallery renovations and feature redesigned lighting and a new layout. Other returning exhibitions to the Freer and Sackler Galleries include “The Glazed Elephant: Ceramic

Traditions in Cambodia” and “Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran.”
Though visitors have had to wait several months before stepping foot inside, the redesigned Freer and Sackler Galleries and new exhibits are well worth the wait. A short walk through the foyer of the Sackler Gallery is enough to show visitors the beauty and rich complexity of Asian art.

The Freer and Sackler Galleries are located at 1050 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C. Admission to both galleries is free.

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