Day Trip Discoveries: Seattle Asian Art Museum — reopened and re-imagined

The entrance to the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

The Seattle Asian Art Museum in Capitol Hill’s Volunteer Park reopened to the public on Feb. 8 after three years and $56 million invested in major renovation and expansion work.

Closed since February 2017, the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) now showcases select Asian artifacts from its extensive collection in the 1933 Art Deco building. This was originally home of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) before it moved to downtown Seattle in late 1991. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Children pose for a photo on the camel statue outside the museum.

The grand building – and its iconic stone camels at the entrance – are treasures in themselves. As a kid, climbing onto the two-humped camels with my siblings was the highlight of my family’s visits to this museum. The Asian art section interested me in Asia and traveling there. I found the collection of netsukes (miniature carved figures from Japan) most intriguing of all.

Kids still love climbing on those camels, creating the perfect photo op for parents. Inside, the renovated museum now displays its permanent collection in 12 different themes – rather than by Asian country or time period.

A visitor examines an 11-headed Guanyin statue from 16th century China.

You no longer find galleries labeled China, Japan or India. Instead, art and objects are grouped by their relationship to themes central to Asia’s arts and societies. These themes include spirituality, worship, celebration, visual arts, literature, clothing, nature and the power of birth and death. The south galleries focus on spiritual life and the north galleries on material life, although some objects relate to both spiritual and material realms. The objective is to show the complexity and diversity of Asia.

Ancient art is mixed with contemporary work across cultures and regions. Initially I found it strange to view a 2nd-century Pakistani Bodhisattva statue near an Indian artist’s 2008 sculpture and ancient Persian stone tablet. SAAM explains: “This arrangement allows for connections that wouldn’t normally be made in a ‘traditional’ curation of a permanent collection, where things are arranged by our modern conception of borders or cultures.”

From Japan: a 20th century woman’s kimono and a hanging silk scroll from 1804.

Also, SAAM’s definition of Asia extends beyond mine – there are displays from Iran (Persia) and Turkey, for example. Asia’s boundaries have shifted over time, and the museum seeks to present the diverse cultures and histories involved. An interactive map lets you discover the countries now represented in SAAM’s collection.

SAAM features one large gallery for special exhibitions. The opening exhibition is Be/longing: Contemporary Asian Art, which showcases 12 artists from Azerbaijan, Iran, India, Thailand, China, Korea, and Japan. All of them have worked or are still working outside Asia, so their artworks reflect both Asian and global perspectives.

The Some One sculpture from 2001 is made of military dog tags.

Dominating this gallery is the stunning Some/One sculpture, a stylized impression of ancient Asian armor made from thousands of modern soldiers’ dog tags. You may have seen this sculpture by Korean artist Do Ho Suh when it was on display in the downtown SAM. It has every bit as much impact in this new gallery.

Throughout SAAM, you can use your smartphone free to listen to a thematic tour or learn more about specific artwork via its phone symbol/QR code on the description plaque. A low- or no-vision version of the smartphone tour is available, as is audio only.

Ghungroos (Indian anklet bells) used to illustrate satellite images of typhoons-2015.

SAAM offers lectures, films, artist/author events and performances via the Gardner Center programs, which highlight Asia’s cultural traditions and contemporary issues. A Saturday University Lecture Series features international and local speakers who explore Asia, past and present.​​​​​​

A woman’s headdress and overdress from early 20th century-Borneo Island, Malaysia.

SAAM also includes an expanded Education Studio with programs for both adults and kids, a Conservation Studio and the McCaw Foundation Research Library in its lower level. An expanded Park Lobby off the Fuller Garden Court (on the upper level) provides visitors with an expansive new view of surrounding Volunteer Park.

Take advantage of SAAM’s free days each month to visit, if you can. Free to everyone are first and second Thursdays and the first Saturday of each month. First Fridays are free to seniors.

Regular admission is $15 adults, $13 seniors and military (with ID), $10 students (with ID) and teens ages 15-18; children age 14 and under are free. Discounted rates are available for groups of 10 or more.

The Seattle Asian Art Museum is part of the Seattle Art Museum and Olympic Sculpture Park in downtown Seattle. A SAM membership provides free entry to all three facilities.

Seattle Asian Art. Museum
1400 E Prospect St.

— By Julie Gangler

Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.

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