Ancient objects get new home. Asian and African art goes underground at the Smithsonian
``It seems to me that objects are so important. They contain essential truth,'' says Dillon Ripley, founder of two major new museums dedicated to objects representing half the world - Asia and Africa. The twin museums opened yesterday at the Smithsonian's new Quadrangle on the Mall next to its famous redstone Castle.Skip to next paragraph
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They are the National Museum of African Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, a museum of Asian art, both sunk as deep underground as some of the archaeological digs from which their treasures emerged. A third level in the enormous subterranean building that houses them has just been christened the S.Dillon Ripley Center in honor of secretary emeritus S.Dillon Ripley. It contains a research, educational, and international center.
At a press conference, Smithsonian secretary Robert McCormick Adams said, ``The building was essentially the vision of one man, Dillon Ripley,'' who worked on the idea for over 20 years, ``and is a fitting tribute to his energy, vision, and dedication.'' The controversial building that houses the two museums has sometimes been called ``Dillon's Last Hurrah,'' or, less enthusiastically, ``that octopus on the Mall,'' which sprawls over and under 4.2 acres of the Enid A. Haupt Garden at a cost of $73.2 million.
What awaits the visitor to the new museum complex is a literally exhaustive look at the art of two ancient cultures. This reporter found that trying to see both museums in one day can overload your cultural circuits, in part because each culture is so different from the other and from Western culture.
There are special treasures in each museum: At the Sackler, you have to wind your way down through levels of mouse-gray rooms to find the priceless Chu silk manuscript, one of the most famous Chinese documents in existence, which was discovered in Hunan Province in the 1930s. It is of silk that's rust brown, in places almost black from age, dating back to somewhere between 480 and 221 BC. The 900 manuscript characters on it have been blurred so badly by time that a clear copy is provided nearby. On loan from the Sackler collection now, it is expected to be returned eventually to China.
The late Dr. Arthur Sackler, the New York art collector, physician, and medical publisher, gave the Smithsonian 1,000 masterworks of Asian art from his collection for the Sackler Gallery before his death in May.
The Sackler Gallery's aboveground entrance pavilion of gray Minnesota granite is next to the Smithsonian's older museum of Asian art, the Freer Gallery, which this collection complements. In its 18,000 square feet of display space below ground, the $75 million Sackler collection includes 153 Shang and Han Dynasty bronzes, 475 Chinese jades from 3,000 BC to the 20th century, 68 Chinese paintings from the 10th to the 20th century, 46 examples of Chinese lacquerware, 247 ancient Middle Eastern works in silver, gold, bronze, ceramic, and minerals, and 20 stone and bronze sculptures from South and Southeast Asia.