Around the Mall & Beyond

The Freer's art is indeed stunning, but the quiet elegance of its new glass cases catches the eye of this visitor

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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?


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