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  • Washington's Museums: Worth the Price of Admission?
    16.04.2006 By DeNeen L. Brown, Washington Post Staff Writer

    A question hangs alongside the art in our museums: Is this painting worth a dollar? (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)

    The Smithsonian leaks free richness, the kind of palatial, spatial dripping wealth probably enjoyed by emperors who walked barefoot on such cool marble floors. Fattened by life, they no doubt listened to the same delicate trickle of waterfalls in indoor gardens and admired paintings by the masters.

    But this kind of opulence is, in these museums, open to the common person. So you wander about the various Smithsonian facilities because you can. Because the museums are free. Open to anybody in the world. You wonder as you wander what kind of people come here in the middle of the day and what do they seek? Would they still come if it cost them a buck, as a member of Congress recently proposed? Simple math: With 25 million visitors a year, if you charged a dollar each for admission, you could raise $25 million for a great institution in need of cash. There are, after all, renovation projects to pay for, like the one at the National Museum of American History, which this fall is closing its doors for almost two years for major makeover.

    But how would the experience of dropping in on one of the museums of the Smithsonian in the middle of a workday change if there were a cost attached?

    Would wandering through the Freer Gallery of Art, for example, somehow feel different? If you paid a buck and stopped in the exhibit "Pretty Women: Freer and the Ideal of Feminine Beauty," would you find the answer to a question that the museum has posted: "Why would a lifelong bachelor surround himself with paintings of women such as those displayed in this gallery?"

    Attendance at the Smithsonian museums has been up and down since 2000, when 31.1 million people visited the Mall. Last year, according to Smithsonian records, that figure was 24 million. You wonder why more people do not partake of the concept of free, allowing themselves the freedom to slip away into the stillness of the marbled museums. Why do people walk by outside, never venturing in, maybe not even understanding that they have the right to walk through the doors without question? Why, you wonder, have they allowed their worlds to become so small and at what price? Museums, after all, are broader than beauty and art, but contain knowledge and exposure to other cultures, other worlds.

    Michelle Roblee, 39, all the way from Chicago, is pausing just outside the Freer's Peacock Room, which was originally the dining room in the London home of Frederick Richards Leyland, a shipowner wealthy enough to have such a room designed in blue and gold and harmony.

    "I don't think a dollar is a lot to ask," Roblee says. "But part of the magic of coming to the Smithsonian is that it is free. I don't think there are too many places in the country where you can experience that." Roblee's day job is risk manager for a bank, but she says she is an artist. That's where her real passion is. So she stops in the pale green Freer to get inspired.

    Laura Turner, who lives in Seattle and works in the grocery business "in charge of pricing for Larry's Market," is surprised that museums here are free. "In Seattle," she says, "we have to pay."

    Then Turner turns and looks at "Before Sunrise," an oil canvas by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, an imaginary scene of fog and vague figures of women twisted in paint strokes: "This is really pretty. It's a little eerie. It seems ghostly, like they are floating free."

    At the National Museum of the American Indian, you sit on a loglike bench under a black ceiling with tiny diamond lights sprinkled above and hear the stories native people told about how the universe was created. How Ojishonda in the Chippewa tradition, whose job it was to place stars in the sky, fell asleep one night. While he was sleeping a fox stole his bag of stars, spilled the bag and the stars "fell all over the sky." When Ojishonda woke up, he found there was no way to gather the stars. "So now he walks around lighting stars one by one. Sometimes, when the snow is deep or he is tired, Ojishonda can't get to all the stars."

    Preserving the nation's history, its peoples and its stories is an art form all its own.

    The Smithsonian is the legacy of a British scientist by the name of James Smithson -- the out-of-wedlock son of Hugh Smithson and Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, a wealthy widow. James, who died in 1829, stipulated in his will that if his nephew should die without children, his estate should go "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."