Two major galleries, the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, come together to form the Smithsonian’s museum dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of Asian art. Together, the collection spans 44,000 objects from China, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, and the Islamic world. 

While part of the same “museum” the two galleries are housed in separate buildings, a short walk apart via an underground passage:

Freer Gallery of Art: This single museum houses one of the world’s finest permanent collections of Asian art as well as the most comprehensive assemblage of the works of American artist James McNeill Whistler. 

The museum’s namesake, Charles Lang Freer, was a self-taught connoisseur, who started out in the 1880s collecting American art, specifically living American artists, including his friend, the British-based Whistler. It was Whistler’s affinity for Japanese and Chinese art that got Freer interested in collecting Asian art. (Galleries near the Peacock Room display other works by Whistler that clearly show the influence of Asian art and techniques on his own style.) Soon Freer’s Asian art collection outgrew his American art collection; today, of the gallery’s 25,000 objects spanning 6,000 years (from China, Japan, Korea, Syria, Iraq, Iran, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Central Asia, and Egypt), with only a small number of American works.

This Italian Renaissance–style building, unlike many of its Smithsonian sisters, is usually blessedly uncrowded, making it a wonderful place to escape D.C.’s throngs. The main galleries lie on one level and encircle a lovely, landscaped central courtyard. It’s possible to stroll unhurried through the skylit rooms, which hold an astonishingly wide array of wonders, such as fine jewelry from the Chinese Liangzhu culture (which flourished during the late Neolithic and Bronze ages—we’re talking 6,000 years ago); a 1760 Japanese handscroll depicting “One Hundred Old Men Gathering for a Drink Party”; 12th-century illuminated manuscripts of sacred texts created by Jain artists of western India; a monumental hammered-brass Iranian candlestick from the late 12th century; exquisite Japanese screens; a beautiful, turquoise-glazed jar from late-12th-century Syria; giant and forbidding-looking 14th-century Japanese wooden figures that stood guard outside the entrance to a temple near Osaka; and the Freer’s single permanent installation, Whistler’s famous (and drop-dead gorgeous) Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, conceived as a dining room for the London mansion of wealthy client F. R. Leyland.

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery: The other half of the gallery duo, the Sackler Gallery exists because primary benefactor Arthur M. Sackler gave the Smithsonian Institution 1,000 works of Asian art and $4 million to put toward museum construction. When it opened in 1987, the gallery held mostly ancient works, including early Chinese bronzes and jades, centuries-old Near East ceramics, and sculpture from South and Southeast Asia. Pieces from that stellar permanent collection continue to be on rotating view in several underground galleries, along with other precious works acquired over the years, like an assemblage of Persian book artistry and 20th-century Japanese ceramics. The collection now numbers 15,000 objects.

In the museum’s street-level pavilion is a changing exhibit called Perspectives, always featuring captivating pieces by a contemporary Asian or Asian-diaspora artist. You’ll encounter another work of contemporary art as you descend the stairs to tour the main galleries. The sculpture suspended from the skylit atrium and into the stairwell is called Monkeys Grasp for the Moon and was designed specifically for the gallery by Chinese artist Xu Bing. The work links 21 laminated wood pieces, each of which spells the word “monkey” in one of a dozen languages.