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What’s New in Washington DC – Sackler Gallery and African Art Museum

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WhatsNewDC_SacklerWelcome to a new series on the blog. As we are continuing our research for our upcoming coverage as well as the brand new Unofficial Guide to Washington, D.C., we will be posting about all the new exhibits and events in Washington.

For those reading this who are not familiar with Washington, there are dozens upon dozens of museums in addition to the well known monuments. Well, these museums don’t just stay still, they are constantly rotating exhibits in and out. Some are small, some are huge, but we visit them all.

Previously I’ve discussed a new exhibit at the Renwick Gallery. Today, we’re going to look at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the National Museum of African Art, with a quick stop at the Smithsonian Castle.

Smithsonian Institution Building a.k.a. Smithsonian Castle

UG_CoverThe official name of the church-like building in the middle of the National Mall is the Smithsonian Institution Building, which contains the Smithsonian Information Center. You will almost never hear it called either of those things, however, because it is almost always referred to (even by Smithsonian) as the Castle. As you can see in the photos, the Castle is a much more apt description.

The Castle was the first of the Smithsonian buildings, built after Englishman James Smithson willed his entire fortune to the United States, a country he never visited…in life (bwah ha ha, spoooooky! Not really, his remains were moved here long after his death). The Institution named for Smithson has obviously grown, but the Castle is much the same.

The interior is impressive and resembles a slightly less ornate church, although it is underutilized as exhibit space. There are a few exhibits on the history of the Castle, information desks, a pricey cafe (coffee and water was over $7), and the crypt containing Smithson’s remains, but it’s mostly about the architecture. Perhaps the most likely reason for a visit is the same reason I was there: the Castle opens at 8:30am rather than 10:00am, which is when many of museums start operation.


Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

The Sackler Gallery is located in what looks to be a very small building behind the Castle. In actuality, the Sackler, along with the African Art Museum (below) and the S. Dillon Ripley Center, is part of a large underground network of galleries and exhibition spaces.

The Sackler Gallery, along with the Freer Gallery (closed for renovation until 2017), house large collections of Asian art as well as a few contemporary pieces and exhibits from elsewhere. The Sackler is also not a particularly busy place, which makes a good stop on a busy weekend. The day I visited there were three new exhibits to see.

Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D (through December)

The centerpiece of this exhibit is a rare standing, carved Buddha (minus the head) that is approximately 1,500 years old. While the age of the Chinese sculpture is certainly interesting, the full carvings of the Six Buddhist Realms of Existence which cover the robe of the figure from head to toe are the truly fascinating part. As part of this exhibit, nearby screens depict the process of 3D imaging that is used to capture minute details about pieces such as this without risking damage. The exhibit is well done and successfully converges ancient sculpture and modern technology.


Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae (through July 31)

Pasagadae was the first capital of the ancient Achaemenid Persian Empire (circa 540 BC) and the final resting place of Cyrus the Great. In 1908, German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld proved conclusively that this was true. This exhibit showcases some of his journals, maps, and photographs. While it is fascinating, I personally found the subject hard to wrap my head around. I enjoy archaeology (mostly Indiana Jones-related, but still…), however everything was boiled down to samples of displays and sketches that did little more than whet the appetite.


The Lost Symphony: Whistler and the Perfection of Art (through May 30)

Definitely one of the stranger exhibits I saw on my last visit (though not the strangest…stay tuned!), this looks at American artist James McNeill Whistler’s failed relationship with patron Frederick Richards Leyland. I won’t go into the full story (Len does in the Unofficial Guide), but suffice it to say that Whistler got no money, got very mad, and got himself into a bit of an artist’s block. This exhibit “about a painting that does not exist” looks at Whistler’s attempts to paint himself out of the block as well as the relationship between an artist and a patron. It is constructed around the fabulously odd Peacock Room REMIX, a tribute to the room design that broke Whistler and Leyland’s relationship.


National Museum of African Art

From Sackler I walked through the underground tunnel to the African Art Museum (yay for underground tunnels on cold days). There were two new exhibits here, but I had never visited before so I took some time to look around. In a strange feat of colliding worlds, I found that much of the art was donated by…the Walt Disney Company! Yes, Disney bought a massive collection of African Art in 1984 to be showcased in Epcot, presumably in the never-built African pavilion. When that never happened, Disney decided to donate the collection to the Smithsonian in 2005. Not all of it is on display yet, but a few pieces like the two below have made it.

While African Art is not necessarily my favorite, I always enjoy new experiences. Besides, the museum was all but empty…so empty in fact, that a worker stopped me on my way in thinking I was lost. Here is a quick overview of the two new exhibits:

Chief S.O. Alonge: Photagrapher to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria (through July 31)

This exhibit focuses on Benin, Nigeria through both the lens of its photographer and the art found in its history.


Emeka Ogboh’s Market Symphony (through Sept 24)

I found this bit of aural art fascinating. Simply painted speakers placed around the room pump nonstop audio from a street market in Lagos, Africa’s largest city. Sitting on the bench in the middle of the room with your eyes closed is the way to experience this one (something I’m rather good at, by the way).


Visitor Info

The Smithsonian Castle is located at 1000 Jefferson Drive SW, on the National Mall directly across from the Museum of Natural History. It is open every day except Christmas from 8:30am until 5:30pm. Between the Castle and Independence Ave SW (on the opposite side as the Mall) are the Sackler Gallery, at 1050 Independence Ave SW, and the African Art Musuem, at 950 Independence Ave SW. Both are open every day except Christmas from 10:00am until 5:30pm.


That’s all for now, coming next will be the National Museum of the American Indian and the Hirshhorn Museum (and the strangest of the new exhibits). There will also be plenty of info coming on visiting D.C., but if there’s anything specific you’d like to read about let me know in the comments.

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Brian McNichols

In addition to blogging, I also do some analyzin' here at Touring Plans. I am a travel nut, planning nut, Disney nut, wall nut. Husband of 1, father of 2. Hilariously funny in my own mind. Find me on Twitter @YesThatBrian if you like really dumb jokes.

9 thoughts on “What’s New in Washington DC – Sackler Gallery and African Art Museum

  • Could next March 2 could you guys go to IOA/ US to see if they do any thing special to celebrate Dr. Seuss day?

  • This site is the BEST place to come for planning/touring advice for Disney theme parks AND Washington DC. Thanks Brian. Looking forward to more installments.

  • We’ve been putting off visiting DC with the kids because it seems a bit overwhelming to plan. Looking forward to the usual thorough, informative touring plans treatment for DC – thanks!

  • Don’t Care!!!!
    If I want to go to DC I will not come here for planning/touring advice. Stick to Theme Parks!

    • Thanks for the well-thought input Joe, however, we will be continuing with our DC coverage and this will be an excellent place to come to for planning/touring advice for Washington as well as theme parks.

  • Thank you for giving us great information on DC. Personally, I’ve been having a hard time breaking the Disney cycle. This provides the “hey, your friends are doing this too” incentive to try a new vacation destination. However, I will be needing at least two LaCava equivalents in your recommendations before I book the tickets.

    • There are certainly no shortage of bars in DC, and many of them are on the upscale end like La Cava. Of course, none have quite the charm or the staff as La Cava, but there are some great ones nonetheless.

    • If you are really going through withdrawal, you can take the short drive or train ride to Bethesda, MD and dine at Naples Ristorante E Pizza E Pasta, operated by Patina (the same company that runs the restaurants in Epcot’s Italy.)


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