Arthur M. Sackler Gallery


This paper will be in the format of a case study to analyze the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Through the whole semester, we learn about the idea of the museum as an interface, the interconnection among art, media, and technology, and the principles and definitions of visual semiotics. This paper will take the gallery and the exhibition “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City” as an example to test the knowledge. Readers probably can get a sense of what the functions of the museum are, how technology helps the museum achieves its mission, and how semiotics make the viewers better interact with the exhibition and the culture.

Arthur M. Sackler

Dr. Arthur M. Sackler (1913 – 1987) was born in Brooklyn, New York, and received education from New York University. He was known as a physician and a doctor. Dr. Sackler founded many scientific institutions and had his own research laboratory. He published 140 papers in neuroendocrinology, psychiatry and experimental medicine. The research into the metabolic basis of schizophrenia was considered as his best contribution.

Arthur M. Sackler

At the same time, Dr. Sackler was an art collector and a connoisseur. He collected thousands of art pieces and established galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Princeton University, a museum at Harvard University, and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian Art in Washington, DC. Metropolitan Museum is the first Asian art gallery in the United States, at the age when Asian art was underappreciated. More than that, after his death, his widow opened a teaching museum, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology at Peking University in Beijing, China, to fulfill his wish of creating bridges between people.

He believed that the relationship between the knowledge (arts and sciences) and the humanities as inextricably connected. In a speech given at the State University of New York, he observed: “Communication is, for me, the primum movens of all culture. In the arts… I find the emotional component most moving. In science, it is the intellectual content. Both are deeply interlinked in the humanities.”

History of Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

On May 21, 1979, the US Congress passed legislation authorizing construction of museums and public spaces in the quadrangle behind the Smithsonian Institution Building, the Castle. On December 23, 1981, federal funding was approved, and combined with Dr. Sackler’s donation of 1,000 pieces of Asian Art and $4 million funding. The Sackler Gallery opened to the public on September 28, 1987.

96 percent of Arthur M. Sackler Museum resides underground, which was designed by architect Jean Paul Carlhian of the Boston firm Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson, and Abbott. Carlhian carried out the concept of a linked underground complex of buildings. “It was placed adjacent to the Freer Gallery of Art and decorated with triangular forms to reflect Islamic design motifs. The pink and gray granite reflects the colors of the Smithsonian Institution Building, the Arts and Industries Building, and the Freer Gallery of Art. The Sackler Gallery is entered through a 4,130 square foot granite pavilion located in the Enid A. Haupt Garden. The rest of the 115,000 square foot structure is built on three sky-lit levels extending 57 feet below ground. The Gallery contains 40,905 square feet of public space for exhibitions and public programs (Smithsonian Institution Archives).”

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

The museum is an interface

According to James Cuno, cited by Andrew McClellan (2008), the functions of museums like Arthur M. Sackler Gallery are more than preserving treasured objects and educating future generations. For Cuno, art museum provides a platform for invaluable objects made by different people with various background, which enables visitors to think “in a larger flow of human experience and to empathize with others through a shared appreciation of beauty (p.10).” People could see the world at a different angle and have a conversation with the objects “across the divisive boundaries of nationality, ethnicity, and religion (p.10)”.

Meanwhile, Andrew McClellan states that the functions of art museums: “—conservation, acquisition, scholarship, education—are increasingly directed toward, and justified by, this encompassing humanist purpose (p.20).” His definition of art museum’s functions matches Dr. Sackler’s idea that knowledge is closely related to humanities.

Moreover, Martin Irvine mentions that museum, as a sub-system of the art world, is a medium and or mediator displaying the cultural category of art (The Institutional Theory of Art and the Artworld). He further explains what “the cultural category of art” is. On the surface, the museum only provides the conceptual and symbolic context of art. In fact, art itself can hardly be defined separately from institutional and cultural categories. The presentation of art keeps redefining the culture through the history of art. And the updated cultural things can be learned in the museum.

Hence, according to Cuno’s, McClellan’s and Irvine’s ideas, art museum not only presents the content of art itself but also exhibiting the inseparable connections between art, culture, and humanity. And museum should be a place helping visitors to understand the culture and history related to the artworks. A successful exhibition, in this case, should at least achieve this goal.

The layers in a museum work on meaning interpretation

To achieve the goal of helping visitors better understand the background information of an art piece, the museum has many techniques and approaches to reach that. For example, visitors can learn information about a museum on its website; visitors can read the brochure which introducing the basic information of the exhibition when they step into a museum; there would a paragraph of introduction besides every piece of art. Moreover, many museums offer their visitors to interact with the art pieces on digital equipment, such as on a touch-screen and/or on a smartphone application.

In this paper, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery could be an appropriate example showing how these different approaches work together like the layers of the museum system to help a museum achieve its mission. For example, one of the gallery’s collections is the bronzed chime, which is the traditional musical instruments in ancient China. the gallery provides a white board containing the textual introduction of the origins and the background history of the chime. At the same time, a projection of a video shows how the chime works. Below every piece of the bronzed object, there is a paragraph description of the object. More than that, visitors can interact with the instrument by knocking the chime and seeing the sound wave on digital displays. Visitors can even learn how to play music with a chime. There is a large touch screen showing the specific areas of a chime. Red spots are marked on the specific areas, where can make the musical notes sound. Visitors can touch the red spots and hear the musical notes.

Art and medium interfaced

In the digital age, electronic equipment enables the museum to better interpret artworks to the viewers. The medium of art information is no longer limited to print media. Janet Murray (2012) introduces an idea of digital artifact (digital medium), which allows human-computer interaction (HCI). He believes that digital artifact is a part of the culture and becomes meaningful through the actions of people who engage with it. The video of how a chime works, the sound wave on digital displays and the virtual chime on the touch screen are the contents of what the digital medium transmits, which are made with electronic bits and computer code. Correspondingly, the projection of the video, the digital displays, and the touch screen are the interfaces that users (museum visitors) can see and operate.

Murray later discusses that media, including digital media, is the building block of culture, which forms the “basis communication and knowledge transmission through time and space” (p.18). He defines culture as a shared understanding conveying largely through symbolic representations, such as paintings, texts, images, and videos. Media can be the building block because it helps with the documentation of symbolic representations. Media ensures that future generations can inherit the culture and spread it to other people with a different culture. The emergence of digital media expands the scope of culture. People can communicate and elaborate their shared understanding in remote space with people who have a totally different cultural background. At the same time, digital media, as a new method, ensures museum visitors to understand the art pieces in a different way from pure text and printed images.

Moreover, Murray’s explanation of the relationship between media and culture refines the function of a museum. On the surface, a museum is a place where art and medium interact. Art is presented in different formats: paper, bronze, wood, etc. In fact, the museum itself is a medium and/or interface allowing people and culture to interact. Visitors with different cultural background come to a museum and see the symbolic representations of a specific culture. The exhibition “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City” could be a proper example showing how people with different cultural background and Asian culture interact in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in the United States.

An introduction to the exhibition

During Mar. 30th – Jun. 23rd, 2019, an exhibition entitled “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City” is held at Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The exhibition assembles “royal portraits, paintings depicting court life, seals and symbols of imperial power, Buddhist sutras and other objects of religious devotion, along with costumes, jewelry, tableware, and furniture.” These objects were originally used by empresses in Qing Dynasty, showing the life of noble women and how they influence the history of Qing. The curators hope to break the stereotype of traditional Chinese women as being passive and submissive through the exhibition. Most of the art pieces come from the Palace Museum in Beijing, China, which is in the Forbidden City – the imperial palace of Ming and Qing Dynasty (The Palace Museum). The exhibition includes several themes: the noble wedding, the crucial doctrine in China – filial piety, and the daily life of empresses.

The art objects

A part of the exhibition shows the details of the noble wedding, containing the album leaves which are ink and color on silk, the wedding dresses, and jewelry, and conventional wedding objects, such as vessels and censers.

From some album leaves, we can clearly see a rigidly stratified social structure in the Forbidden City and in Qing Dynasty. Officials with lower levels are only allowed to stand during the imperial wedding. Officials with higher levels can sit outside the building. Eunuchs and guards are responsible for carrying palanquins. At the same time, on the upper side of the doorframe, there are several “囍”, which is a traditional symbol used as decoration of the wedding, meaning that many joys and happiness. The symbol is still used in today’s China.

The album leaves about an imperial wedding

In fact, “囍” is not the only symbol appears repeatedly through the exhibition. For example, in the wedding dress and the headdress, there is a lot of design of Phoenix, typically representing the noble female. Correspondingly, the sign of the dragon symbolizes the noble male.

With symbols of Phoenix

The ornamentation of “Ruyi”, another common decorative symbol, referring to peace and prosperity in Chinese culture, appears on the clothes and furnishes frequently.


In the painting Flitting Butterflies, “butterflies flitting wing to wing above a daylily refer to Chinese wishes for marital union and the birth of a son (Arthur M. Sackler Gallery).” The butterfly is also a symbol of Chinese culture.

Flitting Butterflies

Another painting Listening to Magpies, Magpies represent double happiness, referring to conjugal joy blessed by son. “The woman fingers an ornament of interlocking jade rings that symbolizes unbroken continuity for a family, and the case holding a cypress bough and fruiting persimmon branch, suggesting: may all your myriad affairs be peaceful (Arthur M. Sackler Gallery).”

Listening to Magpies

Some Concepts of Semiotics

In the semiotics study, Peirce introduces a model of sign. He asserts that a sign should contain three elements: the representamen, an interpretant, and an object. The representamen is the form of the sign; the interpretant is the sense made of the sign; the object is what the sign refers. He also categorizes the sign into three different modes: symbolic, indexical, and iconic. Symbolic sign emphasizes the conventional association, which is a shared identification in a culture. Iconic sign considers more about the resemblance, while the indexical sign highlights the physical connection and/or casual relation (Daniel Chandler, 2007).

In this case, the “囍” is an iconic sign, since it is the letter of happiness in Chinese calligraphy. “Ruyi”, butterfly, magpie, and persimmon branch are more like the symbolic signs.

Except for all the signs mentioned above, there is a special form of sign appearing in the exhibition. Martin Irvine points out the idea of prototype, which is an exemplary model of a type of signs.

In the exhibition, Cixi, one of the most famous female figures in Qing’s history, occupies a large part of the exhibition. Although she was an empress, her political power made her more like an emperor. There are many pieces of the portrait of Cixi in the exhibition, and a special type of portraits is Cixi playing the role as Guanyin, which is the bodhisattva. In Chinese culture, Guanyin is a symbol of compassion. The several different figures of Guanyin Cixi playing with can be seen as a prototype of sign in the semiotic study.

Empress Dowager Cixi as Guanyin

Empress Dowager as Guanyin

People and culture interacted 

As a Chinese, I can understand the cultural meaning behind every piece of art. However, since the exhibition is held in the United States, the target audience would more be American people (including Native American, Asian American, etc.). As one of the functions of a museum is to help people interact with the unfamiliar culture, whether American people could understand Chinese culture within the exhibition or not would be one of the biggest challenges for the curator.

What the curator misses

From my perspective, the introduction paragraph beside every art object explains the cultural background in a simple way. For those who know nothing about Chinese culture, they can get a sense of what the object is and the cultural information it conveys. However, the short paragraph cannot clearly and completely explain the culture.

At the same time, the gallery has its website publishing exhibition-related information. However, the website only contains a basic introduction to the exhibition. For those who are not in D.C. would not be able to see the collections, and for those who hope to do research on it would not be able to take notes.

Moreover, Jay David Bolter (2013) discusses several technologies that can be used in the museum. For example, he talks about the combination of mobile application and augmented reality. The two technologies work together enabling users to interact with a piece of work on their phones. In addition, the technology of panoramas can help visitors see the whole artworks, the environment, and the relationship between the artworks and the museum environment. Overall, every possible combination of mobile application, augmented reality, panoramas, and 3D graphic could make the exhibition more immersive and interactive. Unfortunately, I did not see any of these technologies in the exhibition.


Although it is always a hard mission for the museum to make the visitors and culture better interacted. Luckily, since the museum and the exhibition itself is a filter, the ones who have zero interest in Chinese culture probably would not visit the museum. People who come to the exhibition either have some background knowledge of Chinese culture or are willing to learn about it. In fact, I saw a lot of American old people read the Chinese text very clearly during the visiting.

From my perspective, instead of considering the museum as a place where art – medium interaction and people – culture interaction happen, I would more likely to see the museum as a trigger motivating visitors to learn more about the culture behind the art after they finish the visiting tour.


Andrew McClellan, The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.

Anonymous. (2011, April 14). Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Retrieved from

Arthur M. Sackler. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007. Excerpts.

Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644–1912 | Freer|Sackler. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Janet Murray, Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. Excerpts from Introduction and Chapter 2.

Jay David Bolter, Maria Engberg, and Blair MacIntyre. “Media Studies, Mobile Augmented Reality, and Interaction Design.” Interactions 20, no. 1 (January 2013): 36–45.

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to the Institutional Theory of Art and the Artworld.”

Martin Irvine, Introduction to Visual Semiotics

Sysadmin. (1982, September 15). Sackler Donates 1000 Pieces of Asian Art. Retrieved from