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.
We are talking about 19 sheets of glass almost 7 feet by 10 feet and more than half an inch thick, plus 14 more sheets for the Chinese scroll room, each measuring nearly 6 feet by 12 feet.
"Glass!" said Evans. "Laminated optical glass from Germany, and in this gallery-antireflecting! The best-huge sheets of it! It took four different companies to make it. Yet they still couldn't guarantee against imperfections smaller than a grain of sand. We said we were willing to take the chance, and they said OK, but they couldn't deliver until the critical weeks just before the museum's reopening."
What followed was a saga of sorts. The glass was unloaded from a container ship in Baltimore and brought to Washington on a tractor-trailer. But the sheets wouldn't fit through the Freer's doors, so they had to come in via a 90-ton crane-over the building and into the courtyard. Which meant that the courtyard floor had to be built up to the exact level of the gallery floor so that the load could be rolled in smoothly.
"We had to disassemble a forklift to get it inside the building," recalled Evans. "We had to find an electric one so it wouldn't pollute the air. By this time the artwork was actually going into the museum, and a lot of it was already in place. So we had to be terrifically careful about jarring anything."
The sheets were installed with glass cups. Now, these were not the hand-held jobs you see glaziers using to carry plate glass off the truck when they replace a store window. These cups were part of a sophisticated robotic device that permitted the mover to control every movement of a giant sheet of glass as it was fitted into place.
All right, the big cases are finished. Now, how do we get into them to insert the artwork?
Not simple. Evans showed me a series of steps, not unlike a Chinese puzzle box-and elaborately secure from burglars-that allow a staffer to pull out one of the glass side panels. "It's so airtight that when the panel is pulled open with suction cups, there's a great whoosh of air," he said.
In the Chinese scroll room, a 12-foot-high case is entered by pushing one of the glass side panels just a few millimeters into the wall to permit the front panels to slide sideways on a trolley system. A temporary frame, built adjacent to the case, holds the glass while the curators do their thing. "It takes most of a day," says Evans. The biggest sheets of glass can weigh as much as a half-ton each, after all. And they are so massive that they bend. Just a bit. Like the Empire State Building.
Another little detail in the renovation job at the Freer was the rooftop skylights. There are 13 of them and 21 laylights, or windows in the gallery ceilings. For generations, museums were lit with natural light, and galleries always featured sprawling skylights and glass ceilings. The thinking today, however, is that natural light can damage fabrics and fade colors. As Patrick Sears put it, "Our challenge was to allow for the wonderful variations of natural light while keeping the light within conservation guidelines for extremely fragile works of art."
Also, the original glass windows did not meet code standards. "They were unsafe," Buck Evans remarked. An understatement, it seems. Over the years, Evans told me, those glass panes were known to break, showering sharp glass into the galleries. Fortunately, it never happened when visitors were present, and no one was ever hurt. "Now we have a double layer of glass with a plastic layer between. It's designed to break like auto safety glass. The plastic filters out ultraviolet rays. But at the same time, we matched the look of the old panes. It all looks unchanged."
And track lighting: at last! the critics said. Can't have an up-to-date museum without that. Hardly noticed by today's gallerygoers, the lights introduce a whole new design element. An exhibit designer is in charge of the 20 to 30 different types of lamps, from low-voltage incandescents to fluorescents, as well as innumerable adjustable baffles and screens to achieve an incredible variety of esthetic and conservationally responsible effects. "Now," says lighting designer Richard Skinner, "we can bring out the unique character of each object by choosing from a whole vocabulary, or range, of light sources, combining focused light with natural light."
The same white "cans" of the track lights also conceal smoke detectors, surveillance cameras and other security devices, most of them designed by the Freer's own team of wonder workers.
Another subtle change that I'd never have noticed is that the walls are new, too, with plywood and drywall covering the original plaster and deteriorating vinyl wallpaper. Now paintings hang directly on the walls and no longer from wires, in the Victorian tradition. Still, nothing has been done to change the quiet elegance that makes even Cub Scouts talk in whispers.
So much work, and so invisible. Did you know that a 25-foot-deep hole was dug in the central courtyard? The fountain, 16 feet across, was removed, each stone numbered, and hundreds of tons of dirt taken out through a door via conveyor belt. The new space, part of a 13,000-square-foot expansion, includes three levels of storage and a conservation laboratory. You'd never guess.
Did you know that a good used museum case can easily find work? All but three of the Freer's old ones are on loan to places like the Corcoran Gallery of Art here in Washington and the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore.
Did you know that the Whistler Peacock Room was cleaned from floor to ceiling? With Q-tips?