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.

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.

There are also objects that may rivet the visitor, like the Ming Dynasty scroll painted by Qiu Ying in 1500, ``A Donkey for Mr. Zhu,'' in which poet and book-lover Mr. Zhu is shown accepting a donkey bought in his behalf by his fans. Or there is the spirited Tang Dynasty chestnut horse done in pottery dating from the 7th to the 8th century.

The National Museum of African Art also had its beginnings in the collection of one man, Warren Robbins, the founder of the Museum of African Art that flourished here in nine interconnected town houses on Capitol Hill until the Smithsonian took it national in 1979.

Mr. Robbins, who became fascinated with African tribal arts as a Foreign Service officer, had single-handedly established the only museum dedicated to African art in the United States. He told the Monitor, ``One can only be thrilled to see this materializing of an earlier, somewhat quixotic vision I had back in 1963, and I think it certainly will ultimately realize the goals I had.''

When asked why he had not been invited to speak at the Smithsonian press conference, he explained, ``I think there was a felt need on the part of the new administration to have a departure, and to say, `This is something new, it's different from the old, it's on a level of museum resources and possibilities which were different from what we had in the old days,' and you find that reflected in the press material.''

The press releases do draw comparisons, pointing out that the new museum has five times as much gallery space for collections as the old Capitol Hill location: five galleries with 21,684 feet of exhibition space.

One hundred fifty highlights from the museum's permanent collection of 6,000 objects include a female ancestor mask in wood with fibers braided in corn row, carved by the Chokwe of Zaire/Angola; a Nigerian vessel, circa 1668-1773, made of copper alloy decorated with carved chameleons; and 1,500 West African textiles from a collection by Venice and Alastair Lamb.

One of the most startling and beautiful objects is a Nigerian headdress made of scarlet abrus seeds and wood in the shape of a tall, ancient crown.

From Cameroon, there are two unforgettable neck rings of goldish cast metal, like huge dog collars, which were attached on the neck of a bride when she married and were never removed.

Both the African art museum, with its pink Texas granite pavilion, and the Sackler have wide-ranging educational programs.

The African art museum's library contains over 13,000 books and periodicals on African art and culture, while the Sackler Library contains 35,000 volumes and 200 periodicals on Asian art.

Opening exhibitions at the Sackler deal with ``In Praise of Ancestors: Ritual Objects From China''; ``Monsters, Myths, and Minerals''; ``Pavilions and Immortal Mountains: Chinese Decorative Art and Painting''; and ``Nomads and Nobility: Art of the Ancient Near East.''

At the African museum, the opening exhibitions are ``African Art in the Cycle of Life,'' the museum's permanent collection; ``Objects of Use'' (stools, headrests, etc.); ``Patterns of Life: West African Strip-weaving Traditions''; and ``Royal Benin Art.''

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