A Fresh Look for Smithsonian’s Oldest Art Museum

The Freer’s renovation comes with a new thematic presentation of Asian Art—and the Peacock Room is reopened, as well

Newly written labels make the works "less mysterious and less idiosyncratic" to the novice. Freer|Sackler
Key items in each room are marked with a red-edged label, for a visitors who only have time to consider only a few objects. Freer|Sackler
The infrastructure and technological systems were upgraded, the carpeting removed, and the original terrazzo floors restored Freer|Sackler
The museum's thousands of objects incorporate one of the most important collections of Asian art in the world. Freer|Sackler

The oldest art museum on the National Mall is also the newest, as the Freer Gallery of Art reopened with a string of gala events October 14 and 15, after being closed nearly two years for renovation.

In that a time, the granite exterior of the Smithsonian’s first art museum, opened in 1923, was cleaned, repaired and restored. 

Inside, the infrastructure and technological systems were upgraded, the carpeting removed, and the original terrazzo floors restored. The auditorium was upgraded, Wi-Fi improved, and architectural details were refinished as marble baseboards were installed.

Just as important, curators say, was the opportunity to rethink its exhibitions, presenting a major collection in a way to best engage 21st century audiences.

The Freer is an unusual museum in many respects. Its thousands of artworks and objects, incorporating one of the most important collections of Asian art in the world along with choice works of early 20th century American art, were entirely donated—as was the building and money for curation—by Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer. 

Initially offered to the nation in 1904 through the Smithsonian Institution, it wasn’t accepted until 1906 after some arm-twisting by President Theodore Roosevelt. 

Even as Freer continued to augment the collection, he died in 1919, four years before the museum finally opened its doors—with construction on the building designed by Charles A. Platt delayed by World War I.

Among Freer’s stipulations to his generous gift was that none of its holdings would ever be lent out—lest researchers coming to Washington be disappointed if specific pieces were elsewhere. 

Further, no borrowed objects could be brought into the museum—a problem that was solved when the adjoining Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, also specializing in Asian art, opened 30 years ago in 1987. It operates more like other museums in borrowing items and lending some out for special exhibitions.

Connected to the Freer through a labyrinth of underground galleries and corridors, the Sackler reopens following its own closure and renovation, as well as preparation for four new exhibits, "Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice Across Asia," "Resound: Bells of Ancient China," "Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt" and the contemporary installation "Subodh Gupta: Terminal."  

Julian Raby, the director of the Freer|Sackler, says the renovation allowed the Freer  “to reclaim the building as a work of art in its own right.” 

At the same time, by reshuffling the work in fresh ways, “each gallery has a theme and a purpose.” So instead of galleries that concentrate only on chronology or country of origin, thematic displays show how Buddhist India considered body image, or explore the power of words in Japanese scrolls, says chief curator Massumeh Farad

The “new and exciting approach” of presenting the permanent collection were caused in part by the limitations of not borrowing from other collections, Farad says. “This condition has encouraged us to look outside the box.” 

Newly written labels for the works now have less of an institutional voice, says Lee Glazer, curator of American Art. The intention, she says, was to make the work “less mysterious and less idiosyncratic” to the novice.

Freer, Glazer says, “really was kind of a snob, but he also believed that a museum could be an incredibly democratic place to see the power of beauty.”

In addition to the new themes in the galleries, Raby pointed out that key items in each room are marked with a red-edged label, for a visitors who only have time to consider only a few objects.

But all of the artworks in the Freer|Sackler have been made available in recent years—at least virtually —through digitization. In 2015, the museum announced that more than 40,000 artworks had been digitized and were available online in high resolution images.  John Davis, the Smithsonian’s undersecretary for museums and research, praised Raby, who is retiring early next year after 15 years at the Smithsonian, for guiding the Freer|Sackler to be the first of the Smithsonian museums to complete that process. 

The museum made it possible for anyone with a computer and an internet connection to access the Freer’s “vast collection of Asian art, and its smaller, but rich and deep collection of American Art.”

Besides the exquisite pieces of ancient Asian art, it may be that visitors to the elegant museum will be most surprised by the American art collections. The Freer boasts the largest number of works by the American-born, British based artist James McNeill Whistler, capped by his extraordinary 1876-77 installation Harmony in Blue and Gold, The Peacock Room, commissioned by a London patron, purchased by Freer and reinstalled in his Detroit home before it was sent to Washington, D.C. with the rest of Freer’s art. 

But the Freer also has a splendid John Singer Sergeant painting of an Italian vacation scene, Breakfast in the Loggia, and the heroic 1892-93 painting A Virgin by Abbott Handerson Thayer, presiding over a marble staircase.

Just as he had an unerring eye for beautiful, important relics in Asia, Freer knew just what he liked about impressionistic turn-of-the century American artists. His 1,708 pieces of works by Whistler, Singer, Thayer and the lesser known Thomas Wilmer Dewing and Dwight William Tryon were considered to be complete, so no more were added to the American collection after Freer’s death.

But gifts and purchases of Asian art over the years has swelled that collection to 25,000 objects from China, Japan, Korea, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Central Asia (as well as smaller groups of early Christian and Egyptian art).

Together with the Sackler, the two museums comprise the nation’s museums of Asian art with more than 40,000 objects dating back thousands of years to the Neolithic. As with the other Smithsonian museums, they are open, free, every day of the year but Christmas.

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