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Volume 39, Number 1January/February 1988

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Dr. Sackler’s Buried Treasures

Written by Aileen Vincent-Barwood
Photographed by Dale O'Dell

For two decades, the visionaries at the Smithsonian Institution, led by Secretary S. Dillon Ripley dreamed of adding a magnificent new museum complex to the seven museums that already line Washington's National Mall.

The decision-makers envisioned an edifice that would embrace a splendid collection of art and artifacts from Africa, Asia and the Near East. Along with the art, they planned, there would be workshops, research and conservation laboratories, an international study center, offices and seminar rooms, an auditorium and reception hall, libraries and archives, and galleries for displaying rotating exhibits of the Institution's extraordinary jumble of riches. But –


Horrified, the Smithsonian's old guard, various clients and members of "the nation's attic," and public-interest groups that safeguard the capital's cityscape all raised their voices in consternation.

Late last September, the dream was inaugurated with suitable ceremony, and today, 20 years after the idea was first conceived, seven years after the first drawings were done, and four years after ground was broken for the vast underground complex, the opposition is pacified. Though there are still some who hold reservations about burying people and priceless treasures more than 15 meters (50 feet) below ground, the majority aver that the new complex, with its National Museum of African Art and its Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Far and Near Eastern Art, is a triumph.

For, improbable as it sounds, the subterranean complex is itself a spectacular work of art. Not only is it a backdrop for masterpieces, but - from its entrances to its smallest galleries and offices - it surrounds the visitor with space, light and air. Subtle play of light and shadow; long vistas of galleries, fountains and pools; reflections on still and moving water; interesting shapes, contrasting contours and lines, and some architectural feats that are pure 20th-century genius characterize this new museum, one of only three underground museums in the world.

Nearly 96 percent of the three-story, $72.3-million complex sprawls beneath the 17,000-square-meter (4.2-acre) Enid A. Haupt Garden located in the South Yard, a former parking lot. Standing amid this garden's formal plantings and antique furniture are the entrances: a whimsical copper-domed kiosk, and two elegant pavilions.

Once the decision to build underground was reached, the challenge became the method of construction. There were numerous problems, not the least of which was how to protect the garden's 100-year-old linden tree during the four years of excavation and building, and - even more important - how to preserve the foundations and walls of the venerable Castle to the north and the old red brick Arts and Industries building to the east. (It took $850,000 just to save the linden tree.)

Too, the roof of the complex would require a special design to support the $3-million Haupt Garden. And. since one-third of the complex, its people and its priceless treasures would be below the water table, it would need to be waterproofed.

From the start, it was obvious that no ordinary construction method would do; instead a technique developed in France was used. Rather than drive steel beams into the ground to frame the 5,600-square-meter excavation site (at 60,000 square feet the size of a football field), French engineers employed the concrete-and-slurry method, which consists of pouring concrete, without forms, into steel-framed, slurry-filled trenches which are then tied back with steel cables. The result is a pair of linked but separate vertical walls. For the building's foundation, more than 17 meters (57 feet) below the garden, a 106-centimeter (3.5-foot) reinforced concrete foundation mat was poured. And, because the permanent water table lies just below the second level of the complex, the builders installed a drainage and automatic pumping system and coated the walls with coal-tar waterproofing.

To cool, heat, and ventilate the building, pump water for the pools and fountains, and provide municipal services to the three levels, a two-story mechanical room runs the length of the structure. The building's heating and air-conditioning units are located atop the nearby Freer Gallery building which will, in time, connect to the complex by an underground passage.

But far more important to principal architect Jean Paul Carlhian, of the Boston firm of Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbot, was how to make the descent to the complex exciting and interesting.

"The notion of going down to view great works of art was unique," Carlhian says. "People go down to the cellar, down to a bargain basement, down to the subway, and down to hell. I had to overcome those metaphors, and, without violating the existing Smithsonian buildings, create a willingness to go down to view the galleries."

He did this by enticing visitors to the street-level entrances. For the three-story education and office complex, this was the fanciful Kiosk.

Built on the Mall side of the 19th-century Haupt Garden, the small, round Kiosk, with its light and frivolous air reminiscent of a Victorian bandstand, leads down to the newly named S. Dillon Ripley International Center and Gallery, the 750-square-meter (8,000-square-foot) concourse, the education center, and the museum offices.

Statelier and more classical are the two pavilions that lead respectively to the National Museum of African Art and the Sackler Gallery. Intended by the architect to be "grand vestibules," they stand imposingly within the Haupt Garden but amid their own specially-designed theme gardens. The six-domed African Art pavilion, sheathed in a rosy pink granite, is approached through an extravagance of lush plantings and small streams splashing and spilling over rocks and along small waterways

The gray granite-clad Sackler entrance pavilion, topped with six pyramids, offers a more meditative aspect. Here the garden presents a pair of matching 2.75-meter-high (nine-foot) granite moon gates and a shallow, circular pool divided by four stone walkways that lead visitors over the still water to the "perfect circle" in the center.

So inviting are all three of these entrances that the visitor is enticed from the street in sheer curiosity: What's inside these beautiful small buildings: Why are they here? What do they lead to? It seems natural to ask, and to wander in.

From inside, the pavilions look outward through long windows across their adjacent gardens, pools, and fountains to the much-loved Castle; they look inward to rich floor designs, soaring ceilings, graceful arches, and suspended stairways that seem to descend on a shaft of light.

There is light of all kinds: natural light from huge round or square windows; daylight from six enormous skylights that pours down stairwells and floods the three floors below; reflected light bouncing off tiled pools, dancing on ceilings and ricocheting from angled white walls; artificial light glowing softly from concealed sources in the ceilings and walls; hidden lights that illuminate display cases, gleam off glass and plexiglass, backlight the sculpture, and highlight the art. Part of the overall beauty of the complex is achieved by the interior architecture of the galleries, and the design of the exhibits; both are a collaborative effort by the Smithsonian's Department of Design and Installation. For the Sackler Gallery, the work was headed by Design Director Patrick Sears who, not without opposition from architect Carlhian, supervised a two-year effort of staff designers, carpenters, cabinetmakers and electricians in creating "galleries and exhibits that hold magic when you get to them."

Who paid for all this magic? The United States Congress appropriated $36.6 million toward the new Smithsonian project, with the rest raised from Smithsonian trust funds and through gifts from corporations and individuals. One million dollars was forthcoming from the government of Japan, another million came from the Korean government; among the 38,000 other donors was the government of Bahrain.

Nonetheless, it takes more than money to make a museum. Although the National Museum of African Art had existed since 1964 in a collection of old townhouses around Washington, the Sackler Gallery of Oriental and Near Eastern Art came into being just this year through the largesse of one man.

The late Dr. Arthur M. Sackler - New Yorker, psychiatrist, medical researcher, publisher and art collector - was an ardent activist for the humanities, and recipient of numerous distinguished awards and appointments, among them the chairmanship of the International Committee for the Renaissance of the Egyptian Arts, Sciences and Humanities. "Art and science are two sides of the same coin," he once remarked. "Science is a discipline pursued with passion; art is a passion pursued with discipline. At pursuing both, I've had a lot of fun."

In 1982, Sackler agreed to give 1,000 masterworks from his personal art collection, and $4 million, towards the establishment of a new Smithsonian museum of Asian and Near Eastern Art. He invited Thomas Lawton, senior scholar of Asian art at the Smithsonian - and later director of the Sackler Gallery until shortly after its inauguration - to select $50 million worth of art from his collection; with Sackler's blessing, the selection grew to include objects with a total value closer to $100 million. Chinese paintings, sculpture, lacquerware, jades and bronzes from Sackler's personal collection joined 247 pieces of ancient Near Eastern works in silver, gold, bronze, ceramic and minerals. Some of the most important of these are in the gallery's opening exhibits.

The 124 objects in the exhibit "Nomads and Nobility: Art of the Ancient Near East," consists of a number of outstanding works of the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian empires of early Persia - empires that ruled the ancient urban centers of Mesopotamia between 550 BC and AD 651, and eventually expanded eastward to conquer all of Persia and Central Asia. They were later to challenge the eastward-expanding Roman Empire which, in time, began to influence their art and architecture.

One of the four major installations marking the Sackler Gallery opening, this exhibit displays the sophisticated artistic and technical achievements of these societies. One section, on the manufacture of metal in the ancient Near East, establishes Mesopotamia, Anatolia, the Caucasus, and eastern Iran as the sites of the earliest use of metals, and the home of the subsequent development of the science of metallurgy. Throughout antiquity, metal-working peoples of this area produced the everyday objects of decorated copper and bronze, and the fine ceremonial objects of gold and silver, that now tell us a great deal about their unsurpassed skill and artistry, and much about their lives.

Outstanding in this exhibit are three silver rhytons - zoomorphic drinking horns - that date from the Parthian period. Seeming to float effortlessly inside their plexiglass display case, the heavy silver vessels can be viewed in the round, their intricate chasing and gilding illustrating only some of the impressive range of metalworking techniques practiced by these early craftsmen.

All three vessels have a cup which sweeps up in a polished curve of hammered silver from an animal-headbase; one head has the shape of a bull, one of a lynx, and one of a lion. Another rhyton head, a Sassanian-period gazelle exquisitely fashioned in silver and gilt, has been adopted as the emblem of Sackler Gallery publications.

Also notable are the graceful pear-shaped Sassanian ewers, with elaborately gilded decoration depicting dancing figures - an influence from the expanding empires of Greece and Rome.

Noteworthy, too, is the gallery's unparalleled collection of Persian and Indian paintings and manuscripts. In a small gallery by itself is the long-lost collection of Henri Vever, a Parisian jeweler and art connoisseur whose nearly 500 masterpieces of Islamic painting, calligraphy and bookbinding were bought by the Smithsonian in 1986 for $7 million. In this rare collection are 15 miniatures dating from the 11th to the mid-19th centuries that glow and vibrate with color - thanks to the use of pigments made from malachite, lapis lazuli, cinnabar, gold and silver.

Also in this gallery are two folios from the Demotte Shahnama (The Book of Kings), considered the most important group of Persian paintings ever created. Mounted and displayed under special lighting, they share space with another important Persian work: the Masnavi, or Fifth Book of Jalal al-Din Rumi. This manuscript from 1459 - 44 folios and one precious double-page miniature - is executed on paper in opaque watercolor, ink and gold.

Two archival collections form part of the Near East library collection. In the Herzfeld Archives are field notebooks and drawings, plans and negatives of Persian and Middle Eastern architectural and archeological sites explored between 1879 and 1948. The Myron Smith Archives, 87,000 items in all, include 64,000 negatives, prints, and color and lantern slides taken during the more than 40 years that Smith served as an archeologist and historian in the Islamic world.

Many future exhibits are in the planning stages. What started out in the late 1960's as a call from former Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley for "an increased international focus at the Institution" has already marked the beginning of a new era. The Smithsonian has become, as he envisioned, a university open to the world's use - a place where scholars, collectors, students, artists, travelers and museum enthusiasts can come to study and to learn.

"With the opening of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian... has become a world center for the study of the cultures of a vast portion of the world," Director Thomas Lawton said at the time of the inauguration. "For the first time, Smithsonian visitors may view changing selections of art treasures in settings designed particularly for them."

Aileen Vincent-Barwood, longtime journalist and former Middle East correspondent for the CBC, now freelances from upstate New York.

This article appeared on pages 32-37 of the January/February 1988 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1988 images.