We’re all careful about first impressions when we meet someone influential—the handshake, eye contact. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was all about the gift!
Take the bejeweled pocket watch presented by a Turkish sultan to a Russian tsar. Along with more than 60 other equally lavish gifts, the watch can be seen in the exhibition “The Tsars and the East: Gifts from Turkey and Iran in The Moscow Kremlin,” now on view at the Sackler Gallery.
One critic joked when reviewing the exhibition, “My, how times have changed.” Comparing these ancient treasures to President Obama’s gift of an iPod to Queen Elizabeth—“an apt symbolic gift between world leaders in a recession”—the reviewer called the exhibition’s eye candy “a guilty pleasure” and a reminder of “what one might call the Golden Age of Lobbying.”
The exhibition tells the story of Turkish, Persian and Russian empires through the gifts presented by diplomatic missions and trade delegations. The objects themselves reflect history, culture and scientific discovery and offer insights into diplomacy, trade, emerging technologies and religion. The exhibition illustrates why the arts in particular cross cultures and how artists working across boundaries shape new traditions around the world.
At the Smithsonian, we can easily explore the question, “What is art?” Surely art is found in the rich, varied collections of all our art museums. But what are we to make of the decorated 1709 Stradivarius violin at American History, the classic lines of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega 5B at the Air and Space Museum, or the Mixtec cast-gold bells at the American Indian Museum—all objects of beauty and embodiments of creativity? Because boundaries at the Smithsonian are so fluid the question is all the more interesting.
Clearly, the arts are flourishing at SI, as reflected in the dozen or so new exhibitions opening this year at our various museums and galleries. These exhibitions are one reason that we have attracted 1.5 million more visitors this year than we had at this time last year.
Earlier this spring, Under Secretary for History, Arts, and Culture Richard Kurin held a series of retreats with the art museum directors to examine how interdisciplinary interactions might increase across the Institution. The meetings later expanded to include the history, culture and science unit directors. These dialogues helped inform our institutional strategic planning discussions and identified themes that will help us explain to our internal and external stakeholders how our separate pieces add up to more than the sum of our parts.
We have recently welcomed two new art museum directors: Richard Koshalek, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and Johnnetta Cole, at the National Museum of African Art. Both of these talented individuals understand how art illuminates history, enriches lives and helps address contemporary issues. These experienced professionals have strong reputations as national and global leaders who get things done while thinking “outside of the box.” They will bring energy and vision to their museums and be an important part of our leadership team as we move into the future. And both care deeply about and believe in the value of creative individuals and their work and its ability to enable all of us to live with greater inspiration and imagination.
This is, indeed, an auspicious moment for the arts at the Smithsonian.
Wayne Clough is the 12th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
Posted: 1 June 2009