Discover & Dine Persian Treasures in Washington, D.C.

The Asian Arts and Culture Center’s Discover and Dine Persian Treasures event included
a tour of the Smithsonian’s Freer/Sackler Gallery. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

The Asian Arts & Culture Center (AA&CC) hosted Discover and Dine Persian Treasures in Washington, D.C., on March
6. The event, sponsored by the AA&CC Advisory Board, was one of several programs board
members are initiating to build capacity, reach broader audiences and explore more
aspects of art and culture related to AA&CC themes.

Eleven participants including Kathy and Yoshinobu Shiota, chair of the Asian Arts and
Culture Center, met in front of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
at 10 a.m. AA&CC director Joanna Pecore and program manager Nerissa Paglinauan greeted
everyone and introduced our guide for the day: Alexander Nagel.

Nagel is an assistant professor of ancient art in the Department of Art History at
State University of New York’s (SUNY) Fashion Institute of Technology. As an affiliate
and residential research associate with the National Museum of Natural History at
the Smithsonian Institution and former curator of ancient Near Eastern art in Washington,
D.C., he curated a number of exhibitions and research projects, focusing on the cultures
and the legacies of the ancient Mediterranean, Arabia, the Middle East and Central
Asia.

Nagel began his behind-the-scenes tour ushering the group past the bug collection
to his office located in the anthropology department.

We then moved to a nearby classroom for a jam-packed presentation about his research.
Since 2005, Nagel has been working on excavations at Persepolis, Iran, studying the
ancient Persian empire, including a tomb of a Persian king.

We viewed pictures of his work showing how he microscopes and measures monuments for
color pigments. Nagel, along with his colleagues at SUNY FIT, developed an app that
displays how the monuments originally looked in full color.

Additionally, he provided a brief overview of the Smithsonian, which consists of 20
museums and 159 million objects. It was instantly obvious to everyone attendance we
were in for a wonderful day. Nagel’s passion and enthusiasm for his work bubbled continuously
as he shared his wealth of knowledge with us.

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We moved on to the Smithsonian Anthropology Library and received an overview from
Sue Zwicker, an anthropology reference librarian. At the center of every Smithsonian
museum and research center is a library. According to Zwicker, “Collectively, they
are one of America’s most precious scientific and cultural treasures.”

The Smithsonian libraries network supports research activities across the institution
through diverse collections of materials spanning topics such as aerospace, anthropology,
astronomy, astrophysics and art history to biology and botany, to cultural history,
portraiture, philately, zoology and much, much more.

The collections include thousands of databases, electronic and print periodicals,
and more than two million volumes covering the wide range of subjects reflected in
the museums and research centers of the Smithsonian, Zwicker explained.

The libraries and their skilled staffs collect, preserve and share important scholarly
materials; direct users to the most relevant research sources and assist with research
strategies.

Nagel expeditiously moved our group through the maze of hallways to the herbarium
where we were introduced to Gary Krupnick, head of the plant conversation unit.

The herbarium is a collection of dried plant specimens mounted and cataloged for research.
The Smithsonian herbarium was founded in 1838 and includes international specimens
from as early as 1594.

Krupnick, who has worked for the Smithsonian for more than 20 years, explained the
process of collecting and storing more than five million specimens. Krupnick sees
his job as understanding “how the species relate to each other and what plants are
in danger of going extinct.”

In an an “Oh, wow!” moment, Krupnick showed the group specimens that included plants
collected from Captain Cook’s 1770s voyage to New Holland, or Australia as we know
it today; a plant species from 1594 from London; caper plants from excavations at
the Tower of Babel in Iraq; flowers picked by travelers at Persepolis in Babylon as
well as samples of endangered and extinct plants.

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Attendees gather in front of museum
Attendees in front of the Freer Gallery of Art, part of the Smithsonian’s National
Museum of Asian Art.

While we could have spent hours listening to Krupnick, we reluctantly continued to
the Smithsonian mineral and gem collection.

Nagel guided us through the more than 7,500-item collection. The National Gem Collection
is considered one of the world’s finest, and virtually all of the pieces are gifts
from individuals.

We left the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and briskly walked across the National
Mall to the Freer/Sackler Gallery where Nagel worked as assistant curator. The Freer
Gallery is the Smithsonian’s first museum dedicated to the fine arts. The gallery
displays art from China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, the ancient Near East and the
Islamic world.

Nagel identified and explained objects on view, including precious ancient gold, silverware,
poetry and paintings. Some of the objects are almost 2,500 years old. According to
Nagel, “The Freer hosts the only Iranian collection of Persian metalwork.”

While viewing the collection, Connie Rosemont, a member of the AA&CC Advisory Board
described the trip as opening “my eyes to how old and magnificent these civilizations
are—that I barely knew the names of—and made them real. It’s fun because you’re with
a group of people, and we’re all oohing and aahing together. It’s an outing, it’s
social and it’s intellectually stimulating in a casual way.”

Following a swift but hearty lunch, we headed to the Library of Congress where Nagel
continued his tour. He escorted the group to the Persian reading room where the Persian,
Arabic and Islamic literature collection is housed. The ornate domed room holds religious
and secular texts, poetry, historical literature, prayers and science publications.

Hirad Divavari, an Iranian world specialist and expert in the Iranian language family,
explained his manuscript digitalization project of the Arabic, Islamic and Persian
Shahnameh collections. The manuscripts are available online at the Library of Congress’
website.

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Karla Fears, a tour participant, said she just loved the program. “It’s an adjunct
to my university studies of the Farsi language. This has helped me to understand the
culture and the people of Iran.”

She added, “It’s important for us to get out of our comfort zones in the United States.
We seem to only know about countries when we become enemies. It would be nice to learn
about a country as friends, so we can actually visit and learn their culture.”

The AA&CC hopes to offer more events like the D.C. outing in the future.

“We have been increasing the amount of community and off-site programming we do to
enhance the quality and impact of our work,” says Pecore. “We also hope to engage
the university and surrounding communities in crosscultural dialogue through offering
unique perspectives on creativity and the human experience.”

Pecore continued, “I love this program. We’re lucky to have Alex on our AA&CC board
and that he was able to organize this event. He offered to do this tour when he learned
we were doing the spring exhibit, ‘The Women Shahnameh.’ It’s such a unique opportunity.”

Following an amazing day of exploring, learning and sharing wonderful company, Nagel
ended the tour at the rotunda of the Library of Congress. He thanked everyone for
supporting Asian arts and the program.

“It’s important that these treasures are not lost,” he stressed. “I strongly believe
that enthusiasm and excitement for other cultures can make us better humans, and I
would like to share my enthusiasm for Persia with everyone.”

Sedonia Martin is a former senior communications manager for University Marketing & Communications.

View more information: https://www.towson.edu/cofac/cofac-today/spring-2020/discover-and-dine-asian-arts-culture-center.html

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