Object Feature: Freer|Sackler Reopens

Cynthia Teaching

Teaching in the Japanese Screen Galleries in 2001

The Freer and Sackler Galleries, one of the jewels of the National Mall, reopened just a few weeks ago and our faculty is grateful to have it back. For those of you who don’t know, the Freer|Sackler is comprised mostly of Asian art with a small collection of 19th century American art.  I love this museum. I worked here at the beginning of my career and it is still one of my favorite museums in which to teach.  When I began working in early education though, I observed that many of my colleagues struggled using this collection with young children. I can see their perspective — many of the concepts and traditions represented throughout the collection can be complex and unfamiliar.

With the reopening, it felt like the perfect time to explore the Freer|Sackler through the lens of early childhood education. At SEEC, we believe that it is imperative to introduce children to cultures and ideas other than their own. We feel that this exposure helps them develop empathy and perspective and moreover, it prepares them to be global citizens. We also feel strongly that all the children in our school should be represented through our lessons. It is vital that children see themselves reflected in their learning environment.

Over the course of our almost 30 years, SEEC has worked hard to define approaches that engage children and help them make meaning of objects that might have little or nothing to do with their daily life. Because we know that small children connect best with what they know and do regularly, I wanted to highlight a few ways to approach this collection. The following list is by no means complete, it is more of a snapshot of the techniques an educator, or even a parent, can use with children.  If you discover something I haven’t, please leave a comment – we are always looking to learn from our educator community.


Gandharan Frieze

Scenes from the Life of the Buddha; Pakistan or Afghanistan, Kushan Dynasty (late 2nd – early 3rd century); stone, Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art; F1949.9a-d 

Storytelling is a tool for the young and the old alike, and the Freer|Sackler houses its fair share of good stories. The Museum includes stories of Hindu gods, the life of the Buddha, and Chinese folktales – just to name a few.  With some research and dramatic flair, an educator can bring these stories to life. At SEEC, we often make books for our younger students. This helps us gather information and format it in an accessible way for our students.

Key pieces:

Connecting the Familiar with the Unfamiliar

Young children are concrete learners. If you take something with which they are


Explore the sounds a Chinese bell makes.

familiar and put it next to something with which they are not familiar, you make a connection.

Here are some connections:

  • Music – Resound: Ancient Bells of China is a great exhibit not just because there are bells, but because there are several hands-on components that allow children to understand sound and to hear the difference between Chinese and western bells. Consider bringing a real bell or shaker on your visit to provide a hands-on experience.
  • Animals – There are many examples from which to choose, but of course one of the most prominent work is the Peacock Room by James McNeill Whistler. When visiting the Peacock Room, bring photos of peacocks and/or peacock feathers. Encourage the children to look closely at both the peacock and the room to notice shapes, colors, similarities, and differences.
  • Seasons – The American art galleries in the Freer have a great collection of paintings depicting different seasons and weather. There are so many contextual objects that you can use when exploring seasons. Educators might consider bringing seasonal clothing and/or photos, ice packs, or sensory bottles containing seasonal colors or natural elements.
  • Writing/Books – In addition to a gallery that explores Buddhist sutras, there are other examples of writing from all across Asia throughout the Museum. Bring examples of your favorite children’s books and/or special books that might be important to you or to one of your student’s families.

    Guardian Figure

    Guardian figure; Japan, Kamakura period (1185–1333); wood; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art; F1949.21

  • Human Body, Gestures or Movement – There are two galleries devoted to how the human body is depicted on the Indian subcontinent. You can also find other examples, including this Guardian Figure from Japan. Don’t be afraid to encourage children to move their bodies in these spaces. The opportunity to move and explore their own body will enrich the experience and develop their gross motor skills.

Do you ever wonder why babies put things in their mouths? That is how they learn. Young children begin to understand their world by using their five senses (actually there are seven, but that is another blog – vestibular and proprioception). So I was especially excited to see that Freer has a whole room devoted to Islamic art and the senses. Plates, candlesticks, incense burners, and illustrations of music are just a few of the objects you will encounter. While you obviously can’t burn incense or make a meal in the galleries, educators can easily pair these objects with in-classroom activities that might inspire our sense of smell or taste.  It might also be an opportunity to reach out to your classroom families, the objects in these galleries come from a wide geographic area and might help you make some personal connections in your community.

The Sackler  has a Tibetan shrine room that will allow children to be in a space where they will encounter sumptuous images while listening Buddhist chants and watching the flickering of candlelight. The accompanying app, Sacred Spaces, has a lot of information to help inform your visit. If you have the time, you can distill a few key points that can help your students make stronger connections.


Looking at Buddha

At SEEC, we believe that young children should be introduced to art, begin to develop a visual vocabulary, and embrace their own creativity. The works throughout the museum, but especially in the American galleries, offer young children the opportunity to explore and notice similarities and differences.

Charles Lang Freer’s taste in collecting art was influenced by the Aesthetic Movement in the late 1800’s, which advocated for “art for art’s sake.”  The artists associated with this movement were more concerned with making art that was an expression of creativity and beauty. I think this quote, taken from the Freer|Sackler website, sums it up well.

.. it was through American art of his own time that Freer developed the habits of quiet contemplation and intelligent comparison that he hoped to share with future generations of museum visitors.

I think Freer would be satisfied to know that SEEC’s students are using his art collection to begin  developing their own aesthetic and appreciation for museums.