07 May 2003

Persian Art Tells History's Tales in Washington, D.C.

Smithsonian Institution brings Iranian history to life

By Susan Domowitz
Washington File Staff Writer

The brilliant lapis and turquoise blues of thousand-year old ceramic bowls from Iran, the shimmering metalwork of a silver plate from Artaxerxes' palace, and the sparkling colors of medieval Persian manuscripts dazzle visitors to the Smithsonian Institution's Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, D.C. Here, in the United States' national museum, carefully preserved and displayed treasures help bring Iranian history to life.

The Smithsonian Institution, often called "the nation's attic," is actually a collection of sixteen museums and galleries, plus the National Zoo. The Smithsonian is the world's largest museum complex and research institution, and its history is as interesting as its contents. James Smithson (1765-1829), a wealthy English scientist, bequeathed his estate to found an establishment in Washington, D.C., dedicated to "the increase and diffusion of knowledge." The Smithsonian Institution was established in 1846. Although Smithson never visited the United States during his lifetime, or saw the museum that bears his name, his body lies buried in the original Smithsonian building.

Among the Smithsonian's sixteen museums are the Freer Gallery of Art, established in 1923, and its sister museum, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which opened in 1987. Together, these two galleries form the national museum of Asian art in the United States. They house a combined total of more than 26,000 objects from Asia -- including Iran, China, Japan, Korea, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Central Asia. Information about the Freer and Sackler Galleries, and photos of some of the objects in the collection, are available at http://www.asia.si.edu.

At the Smithsonian, Iranian history comes to life through exhibits of medieval paintings and drawings, intricate inlaid metalwork in brass, bronze, gold, silver and copper, as well as Sasanian silverwork, ceramic vessels from ancient and Islamic Iran, decorative tiles, and photographs, and textiles. The "arts of the book" -- calligraphy, illustration, illumination and bookbinding -- were recently featured in an exhibit on the Persian "Book of Kings" (the Persian national epic, the Shahnameh).

According to Ann Gunter, Associate Curator of Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Smithsonian, craftsmen in the ancient world had rich natural resources to provide the materials for their beautiful work. Abundant sources of clays, metal ores, and iron-rich pigments fueled their creativity.

"Most of the precious metal at Persepolis," Gunter says, "was probably in the form of vessels, which could serve as royal tableware, be stored in the treasury, or be given away as gifts."

Gunter says that when Alexander the Great and his armies sacked Persepolis in 330 B.C.E., one ancient historian reported that they found gold, silver, and valuables in such quantities that ten thousand mules and five hundred camels were needed to carry away the spoils.

The Islamic period in Iran also has its story to tell, chiefly through metalwork, ceramics, calligraphy and beautifully illuminated books. Massumeh Farhad, Associate Curator of Islamic Art at the galleries, says, "We have one of the largest collections of illustrated Persian manuscripts in the U.S., dating from the early 14th to the 17th century, representing a remarkable overview of this artistic tradition."

Among the collection's highlights is the "Haft Awrang" ("Seven Thrones"), by the 15th-century mystical poet Jami, the "Divan" (Collected Poems) of Sultan Ahmad Jalayir, completed around 1400, as well as several illustrated folios from the celebrated 14th-century Il-Khanid or Mongol Shahnameh (Book of Kings), Iran's national epic.

Like many Persian manuscripts, this Shanameh had been taken apart and sold by the page in the early 20th century, as art dealers realized they could earn more by selling separate pages than by selling an intact volume. To address this sad state of affairs, Smithsonian directors and curators in the past made great efforts to locate folios belonging to this text and reunite as many as possible.

How did all these pieces of Iran's history come to the Smithsonian? Like all museums, the Smithsonian builds its collections through purchases, and gifts and loans from collectors, with careful respect for international statutes on cultural property. The Islamic inlaid metalwork currently on exhibit, for example, was assembled by the late Lebanese businessman, Nuhad Es-Said, and is on loan to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The collection, which has been described as "arguably the finest collection of Islamic metalwork in private hands," consists of brass, bronze and steel objects dating from the 10th to the 19th century. As the exhibition explains, the manufacture of inlaid metalwork flourished in the early 12th century in eastern Iran and present-day Afghanistan, and spread westward to Egypt, Syria, and Turkey.

The Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries are not just for specialists. The museums aim to broaden their audience by offering a wide spectrum of educational programs. "ImaginAsia" is a program geared to exposing children to Asian art and culture.

"ImaginAsia is very popular," Farhad says. "There is a hunger to learn about other cultures."

The Freer and Sackler have also organized study tours for its members to different parts of Asia. Four years ago, for example, there was an art study tour to Iran that was very successful. Museum curators hope that future projects will include exchanges with Iranian scholars and museum professionals.

In the past, the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery have highlighted Persian art and history with such exhibits as "Persepolis: Documenting an Ancient Iranian Capital, 1923-1935," which includes photographs and drawings resulting from work by German archeologists and the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago during archeological expeditions to Persepolis during the 1920s and 1930s. Other exhibitions at the Sackler have included "Antoin Sevruguin and the Persian Image," which highlighted the museum's remarkable collection of late 19th and early 20th century photographs. A selection of Sevruguin's photographs was sent to the Golistan Palace Library in Tehran, where it was displayed in 2002 in their galleries. Another recent Sackler exhibition examined the relationship of 16th and 17th century Persian paintings and drawings to poetry, and included seven works by Riza Abbasi, one of Iran's most celebrated artists.

All these efforts are aimed at making art -- representing the culture and history of Iran and other countries -- freely available to everyone.

"Culture seems to be a very effective way to get beyond politics," says Farhad.

According to Farhad, future exhibitions at the galleries will highlight contemporary art from Asia and the Near East, including Iran. And in April, the Freer and Sackler expect to announce the opening of their on-line exhibit of more than 3,000 objects from the collections.

To see images from current and recent exhibits featuring Persian artifacts, please visit:

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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