Nobody ever pays any attention to the exhibit cases in a museum. You're not supposed to.
But they have a life of their own, as I was to learn on a recent visit to the Freer Gallery of Art. The Freer, which reopened almost two years ago after a massive $26 million renovation, is filled with treasures of Asian and American art so stunning that I had never stopped to consider the changes that had taken place in the museum itself.
Take those cases, for example. The old cases were beautiful, to be sure, lovingly designed more than 70 years ago by architect Charles A. Platt and Charles Lang Freer himself.
But, as assistant director Patrick H. Sears, who managed the entire reconstruction project, wondered in print, "Weren't the stately walnut exhibition cases with their greenish glass bonnets too high for young visitors and those in wheelchairs?"
Considered state of the art when the Freer first opened in 1923, the cases each stood alone on a sturdy set of legs. Hidden within those legs were shafts that hoisted the glass bonnet up and down so that the curators could put things in or take things out. The inno-vative gear system that operated the shafts became something of a Freer trademark. But in recent years critics complained about the "sea of legs" that confronted the visitor.
"Plus, they were too high for the Americans with Disabilities Act, a major element in all our designing now," said Robert Evans, the facilities coordinator at the Freer. Evans, known to some as "Buck," is a reformed Fordham business student turned cabinetmaker who helped rebuild and maintain many of those old cabinets, so he knows what he is talking about.
For the renovation, the designers came up with a simple, less-stylized case using clear float glass, "the clearest glass you can buy, with hardly any iron in it," Evans said. "And the wood for the cabinets is quarter-sawn American black walnut, the most expensive cut, which gives a very straight line of grain." The conventional cut-plain slice, taken straight off the log and not from a pie-shaped wedge of it-gives a far more curving and swirling grain pattern. This cut, it was thought, would result in a busy look. The idea was to make the cases as unobtrusive as possible.
Evans and I had wandered into a gallery of Korean ceramics, and here were a number of cases cantilevered out from the wall, no legs to house hoisting shafts. "Tell me," I asked him, "how do the curators get into these cases?" There is no little keyhole, no thumb grip on the glass, no visible opening at all. Evans showed me that an improved version of the original mechanical system had been ingeniously housed in the cabinetry that hung on the wall.
In the old days, a curator inserted a crank into the bottom of a case and manually turned the gears that hoisted the glass. Now the job is done by an electric motor on wheels. Evans calls it "R2D2." It has extremely low RPMs so it won't create vibrations. A flexible shaft goes into a hole in the case underneath, turns a gearing system-and up goes the glass.
Cases come in different shapes, but these are regular-sized cases. Now we moved into the big-screen room, where the many-paneled Japanese screens used to be displayed bare-naked to the public. Today, for reasons of security and conservation, most of the screens are behind glass.