Working together to conserve Asian art treasures

Seated Buddha sculpture (Courtesy of Rogers Fund/Metropolitan Museum of Art)
China, Tang dynasty, early 7th century. Hollow-core lacquer with pigment and gilding. (Rogers Fund/Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Three ancient Asian art works never exhibited together before recently graced a leading Smithsonian Institution venue in Washington.

“These are the only existing Chinese lacquer Buddhas in the world,” says Donna Strahan, who heads the department of conservation and scientific research at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Arthur M. Sackler Asian art galleries. She oversaw preparations for the “Secrets of the Lacquer Buddha” exhibition at the Sackler Gallery, which showcased the three life-sized Buddha sculptures.

The Smithsonian galleries are esteemed among experts of Asian art, but the galleries are more than a venue to show art: They also are scientific conservation and research centers. That’s why so many countries frequently collaborate with the Freer-Sackler galleries.

For example, Japan recently funded two curatorial chairs to encourage study and preservation of Japanese art. The South Korean government funded a five-year scholars-in-residence program that included exhibitions of Korean masterworks. Cambodia worked with the Sackler staff to set up the first conservation lab at the National Museum of Cambodia.

Seated Buddha statue (Courtesy of Freer Gallery of Art/Smithsonian Institution)
China, Tang dynasty, early 7th century. Hollow-core lacquer with pigment and gilding. (Freer Gallery of Art/Smithsonian Institution)

“Our whole goal is to make these objects last. If this is 1,000 years old, we’d like to have it last another 1,000,” Strahan says.

Science and the Buddhas

The Secrets of the Lacquer Buddha exhibition at the Sackler Gallery illustrates the science behind the art.

The Buddhas were put through nondestructive computerized tomography (CT) scans, X-ray fluorescence analysis and electron microscopy to reveal what was beneath the layers of lacquer. “We spend a great deal of time trying to find out how things are made,” Strahan says.

The exhibit featured Buddhas from Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City plus the one from the Sackler. “They have never been together before. Neither the Met nor the Walters have ever allowed their pieces to be lent,” Strahan says. The reputations of the Sackler gallery and Strahan helped pull it off.


Seated Buddha statue (Courtesy of Walters Art Museum)
China, Sui dynasty, circa 580–90. Wood-core lacquer with pigment. (Walters Art Museum)

Caring for art objects—and relationships

“We’ve become kind of an industry leader in the way that we care for, transport and exhibit objects,” says ancient Chinese art curator J. Keith Wilson. That’s why museums look to the Sackler gallery for expertise and training.

Japan has been a partner since the two galleries’ beginning. “Our basis for existence has always been to maintain strong relationships with the cultures that we represent. And it’s reciprocal,” says senior curator of Japanese art James Ulak.

The galleries house the largest Asian art research library in the United States. Recent exhibitions have highlighted aspects of Afghan, Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Persian art.