Smithsonian Goes Low for Highbrow Exhibits and Art

Posted November 13, 2008 at 2:28pm

In its 150 years, the Smithsonian has accrued 150 million pieces in its collection of objects, artifacts, specimens and creatures. So, where do you house all of this history? Even though the Smithsonian is sometimes referred to as “America’s Attic,” the truth is that many of the most interesting (and least visited) Smithsonian collections are in the basement.

In fact, most people don’t know that there’s a world of collections and cultural activity beneath the National Mall.

Known as the Quadrangle complex, these spaces — the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the National Museum of African Art and the S. Dillon Ripley Center, along with the Enid A. Haupt Garden — opened in 1987 and were constructed to enhance the Smithsonian’s focus on non-Western art. But they also hold a far greater distinction: With Mall real estate at a premium, these buildings are the first underground museums in Washington.


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The ground-level entrances almost disappear into the surrounding landscape, as they were designed to do, and they barely hint at the wealth of history and art found below.

“You look around and see this pavilion, but what you don’t know is that you take an elevator down one flight and there are exhibits,” said Linda St. Thomas, a Smithsonian spokeswoman.

National Museum of African Art

Composed of more than 9,000 objects, the collection at the National Museum of African Art represents nearly every region of Africa and contains a variety of media and art forms — textiles, photography, sculpture, pottery, painting, jewelry and video art — dating from ancient to contemporary times.

The museum was established in 1964 as a private, educational institution originally located on Capitol Hill in a row of town houses, including the home of former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In 1979, Congress voted to incorporate it into the Smithsonian Institution, and the collection is now housed in more than 22,000 square feet of exhibition space — with more than 95 percent of it below ground.

The way this and the Sackler were designed — with large skylights and vast windows on the ground floor and winding staircases — means that even in lower sublevels it never feels dark.

The ground level is essentially an information desk with a couple pieces of art. One of the most interesting sculptures in the entire museum, however, is on this floor: “Masquerader with Boat Headdress,” a kinetic sculpture of a man dancing to honor the water spirits. This piece, from Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas Camp, is timed to perform several times a day.

The remaining three floors of the complex descend 57 feet below ground level.

The first level down is a vast exhibition space and the museum shop, and down another flight is more exhibition space, a lecture hall, a workshop, the Warren M. Robbins Library and the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives.

“Desert Jewels: North African Jewelry and Photography from the Xavier Guerrand-Hermès Collection,” on view through Jan. 11, includes everything from everyday silver pendants to exquisite beaded works. Another, titled “TxtStyl3s/F4shng Id3ntty,” showcases remarkably intricate textiles and looks at how these garments shape communication and expressions of identity.

And, finally, the third sublevel houses the ceramic arts collection with traditional and modern pieces from different regions of the continent. The main feature of this level, however, is the cobalt-blue fountain that reflects the sunlight from the skylight above — and which is mirrored on the opposite side of the “tunnel” at the entrance to the Sackler. This is also the access point to the Ripley Center and International Gallery.

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

With a $4 million donation from Dr. Arthur M. Sackler, the Smithsonian opened the gallery in 1987 to house Sackler’s additional gift of some 1,000 works of Asian art. Among the highlights of his gifts were early Chinese bronzes and jades, Chinese paintings and lacquerware, ancient Near Eastern ceramics and metalware, and sculptures from South and Southeast Asia.

More than 20 years and nearly 9,000 additions to the collection later, highlights include everything from 10th- to 13th-century Cambodian stone carvings and 8th- to 14th-century South Indian Hindu sculpture to contemporary Japanese porcelain, and in between — such as nearly 6,000 years of Chinese art.

The most dynamic piece in the gallery is “Monkeys Grasping for the Moon,” a suspended sculpture designed specifically for the Sackler by expatriate Chinese artist Xu Bing as part of a solo exhibition in 2001. The popular temporary display became permanent and now hangs all the way down from the sky-lit atrium through the gallery’s stairwell down to the third-sublevel reflecting pool, almost dipping into the water. Composed of 21 interconnected wooden pieces that each form the word “monkey” in one of a dozen different languages, the work is based on a Chinese folk tale in which a group of monkeys attempt to capture the moon. It’s strikingly similar to childhood-favorite Barrel of Monkeys, but in the best way possible. At the base, the pool is surrounded by vibrantly colored and uniquely shaped ceramics from Southeast Asia as part of the “Taking Shape” exhibit.

The Sackler’s showcase temporary exhibit, “Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur,” a 60-painting, newly discovered collection from the 17th- to 19th-century royal court in India, is a must-see before it closes Jan. 4.

In addition to exhibition space, the second level is home to the largest Asian art library in the United States, composed of more than 80,000 volumes.

The Sackler is connected to its upstairs neighbor and sister Asian museum, the Freer Gallery of Art, by more than just tunnels. The two will join for a temporary exhibit, closing in late January, that brings the seashore to life, juxtaposing 22 pastels of the Maine coast by American landscape painter Dwight Tyron with six black-and-white photographs of the sea by contemporary Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto.

And just why are there two Asian museums, you might be wondering? The Freer, which contains one of the world’s finest collections of Asian masterpieces, was endowed by Charles Freer, who insisted on a few conditions: Objects in the collection could not be loaned out, nor could objects from outside the collection be put on display. Because of the latter, the connected Sackler Gallery was built.

S. Dillon Ripley Center

Named after the eighth secretary of the Smithsonian who was instrumental — along with Sackler — in making the Quadrangle museums a reality, the S. Dillon Ripley Center, at ground level, simply looks like a copper-domed information kiosk between the Castle and the Freer. The sublevels below, however, house offices for the Smithsonian, including the home of the Smithsonian Associates, artists’ studios, classrooms, lecture halls and small art exhibits in abundance — and in these cold winter months, it’s definitely worth at least a walk-through to view the four temporary exhibits on display in the hallways and at the International Gallery.

In “After 1968: Contemporary Artists and the Civil Rights Legacy,” artists take on the issues of racial identity and political and cultural turmoil. This goes hand-in-hand with “Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956-1968,” which includes unforgettable images from the 12-year period between the Rosa Parks case and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. There’s also “Green Light,” which showcases works by 16- to 25-year-old award-winning artists with disabilities, and “Posters from the Division of Community Education of Puerto Rico, 1949-1989,” which consists of dozens of vibrant posters produced by artists enlisted by the government as an effort to stimulate artistic production on the island.

But perhaps the most popular reason to visit the Ripley Center is the Discovery Theater, which puts on more than 350 shows and programs annually for children of all ages.

The unique theater space, which can be organized in multiple ways since neither the seats nor the stage are bolted down, seats up to 200 people. This allows for loads of interaction and intensity, with the actors reaching out to the audience, and using props and mixed media in order to keep the kids active and attentive.

“They’re not actors. They’re museum educators” who act as curators, researching all the material themselves, Discovery Theater Director Roberta Gasbarre said. “It’s like a living exhibit.”

Throughout the year, the theater celebrates special themes. For example, in November, tales from Native Americans are highlighted. The most popular month for performances is February, when Black History Month is celebrated with songs, stories and plays.

Celebrating its establishment in 1964 as the Smithsonian’s Puppet Theater, the Discovery Theater has dedicated its 2008-09 season as the “Year of the Puppet,” with shows including “Rapunzel” and a rendition of storytime favorite “Starry, Starry Night.”

The Crypt

Though not technically underground like the other spaces on this list, this six-feet- under type of exhibit is one of the most interesting and least known parts of the Smithsonian collection.

In 1905, just inside the Jefferson Drive entrance of the Castle, the Smithsonian built a new room to house the crypt of the institution’s British benefactor, James Smithson. His bequest worth $508,318 is what established the Smithsonian in the early 19th century.

Although Smithson never came to America in his lifetime, his body was brought to the U.S. nearly 80 years after his death when the Smithsonian was informed that the cemetery in Italy where he was buried was to be demolished. The institution sent a member of its board of regents, Alexander Graham Bell, to retrieve Smithson’s body.

The Crypt contains the neoclassical-style tomb, carved at the time of his death in 1829, a case displaying books from Smithson’s library, a sample of Smithsonite (the mineral named after the scientist), a bronze bust of Smithson and a copy of Smithson’s will.

The Quadrangle museums surround the Smithsonian Institution Building (the Castle), 1000 Jefferson Drive SW; 202-357-2700; open daily 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. The museums are open daily 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.