Aiming directly at tourists with historical wanderlust, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., has opened a new exhibit, “ The Traveler’s Eye.”
Running through May 21, 2015, it draws from the extensive Asian collections at the Sackler and the neighboring Freer Gallery of Art to introduce you to centuries-old travel hot spots (some now lost to history) and the golden age of wish-you-were-here communication: postcards.
Seven of the curators from the Sackler and Freer have teamed up for the exhibition using screens, scrolls, maps, photographs, drawings, postcards and even stones to take visitors on a ride.
At the turn of the 20th century, Detroit industrialist and art lover Charles L. Freer visited China and Japan several times, amassing art and antiques. He also wrote extensively in journals, two of which the Sackler has on display, one from 1895 and the other 1910.
It was on the 1910 trip to China that he jotted notes on the dragon-edged map of the Beijing-Fengtian (Shenyang) railroad that is now on display.
He also went to the Buddhist temples at Longmen where he spent spend two weeks in “complete isolation with no other English speakers,” said curator David Hogge of the Freer Gallery. Reproduced from glass plates and original prints, the Freer photographs show what no longer exists. Many of the statues have since been destroyed.
A new book on Freer’s travels to the Longmen Buddhist Cave Temples, “A Thousand Graces,” is selling like “hot cakes” in China where “they’re constantly having to reprint them,” adds Hogge. It is written in Chinese.
The “Traveler’s Eye” opens with a large colorful gold and ink standing screen that shows how the Japanese saw the Portuguese traders who arrived in the 17th century, carrying Chinese trade goods, small dogs and Jesuits priests. It’s called “Southern Barbarians in Japan.”
Colorful Japanese woodblock prints from Utagawa Hiroshige show travel down the Tokaido road between Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto in 1855. India is represented with modern photographs.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the show is when it shows the greater ramifications of what’s on display.
For example, when Ernst Herzfeld excavated Samarra, Iraq, in 1911, it was a lost city of mud and fragments. Herzfeld went in with “teams of assistants… measuring, photographing, basically using every means available to document these things,” said Hogge.
On display is one of Herzfeld’s journals with a list of everywhere he took out a piece of plaster and decorative work, and mapped it to his map of the site. That decorative work ended up spread between several museums but, now with many of those museums putting their works online, it’s actually possible, using the journal and maps, to re-create the place they came from originally.
“Little piece of plaster don’t make much of an exhibition,” said Hogge, “but when you can really put it in context of these larger continuous patterns of wall decoration, it really becomes attractive.”
Probably the most accessible to modern visitors are the 72 postcards that date back to the late 1890s and up through the 1920s. They are snapshots of other times and places.
Hogge says they’re “everything from iconic images of architecture to popular iconic images of people, so we have the requisite harem scene and geisha under cherry blossom.” Many are hand-painted.
One is even a plea for a pen pal. “How are you doing of late? I am of good health. I send 5 cards once on 24, 26 June of last year but I am not received yet. I think it will not reached you and I send 5 cards and hope you would like them. Won’t you kindly give me card in exchange for this. I like card very much. I am a boy of Japan. Age is 16. Goodbye.”
Others show mosques, rickshaws and a slice of history — a temporary wood-and-plaster triumphal arch in Tokyo following the 1905 defeat of Russia during the Russo-Japanese war.
Some are early marketing efforts. A 1905 trans-Pacific card has a picture of the destination as well as the luxuries of the liner that the sender was traveling on.
The Sackler plans to offer a kiosk so that visitors can send an email that looks like it was written on a postcard from the collection.