The Lesser Smithsonians


…well, not lesser exactly, but certainly the smaller ones.

The Smithsonian is a bit of a weird institution. It includes the big, “flashy” museums like Air and Space, which is reportedly the most visited museum in the world. But dotted around DC there are teeny tiny galleries that also fall under the Smithsonian umbrella, often the result of big bequests back in the day. I made it round three of these today: the Renwick Gallery (the crafts collection of the American Art Museum), the Sackler Gallery (Asian art), and the Freer Gallery of Art (Asian art… and James Whistler).

The Renwick is delightful! It really is small; housed literally across the road from the White House, you get the feeling that the Smithsonian doesn’t know quite what to do with such a beautiful building. There are only five permanent exhibit rooms, plus some temporary space on the ground floor (currently closed). But they have such incredibly things on display that it most definitely is a matter of quality over quantity.

The biggest space is given over to this "Grand Salon". Wonderfully random collection of paintings.

Below is Ghost Clock by Wendell Castle.

Sure, it just looks like a clock covered in a sheet… but in reality it’s a single piece of wood, carved and then bleached to look like that. AMAZING. I also loved the piece in the background, The Silk Rainforest by Sheila Hicks.

This is Bancketje (Banquet) by Beth Lipman.

On that table are 400 handmade glass objects, everything from goblets to grapes to cakes to chickens.

And the incredible glass didn’t end there. In the next room was Reclining Dress Impression with Drapery by Karen LaMonte.

In no way whatsoever does this photo do this sculpture justice. It is incredible. It’s apparently one piece of glass, and it’s almost entirely hollow. In person it honestly looks alive, as if the person wearing the dress has just turned invisible. Stunning.

After the Renwick I wandered down to the Mall, stopping off at the American History Museum (one of the Smithsonian’s big and flashy museums) for a drink in air-conditioned comfort. They have a small but lovely exhibition on at the moment on the history of pop-up books which I’d already seen… but I did spend a while in the shop playing with the books on display there. Pop-ups are cool, guys.

I quite like this sculpture outside the American History Museum.

Then it was across the Mall to the Sackler and Freer galleries.

Even after going in and wandering around, I’m still slightly confused about what these galleries are all about. They’re linked to each other by an underground tunnel, and I’m fairly sure you can also get into the African Art Museum, which is in the same row. I did manage to get vaguely lost.

I know absolutely nothing about Asian art, but I did enjoy an exhibition of portraits from the Qing dynasty, if only because the colours were beautiful and the detail incredible.

The Freer’s collection is… unique, to put it mildly. The Smithsonian describes it as, “one of the premier collections of Asian art, with objects dating from Neolithic times to the early 20th century, as well as the world’s most important collection of works by James McNeill Whistler.” Apparently Charles Freer was good friends with Whistler? Who encouraged Freer to collect Asian art? I’m sure if I had longer it would’ve made more sense, but first impression is that it’s a bit of an odd mix.

By this time it was almost closing so I didn’t take many photos, but I did like this cheeky little statue:






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