The Sackler is one-half of what is formally known as the National Museum of Asian Art in the United States (the Freer Gallery is the other half). Though the two museums are connected by purpose, research, staff—and subterranean passageway—they occupy separate buildings.
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. Especially recommended is the "Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice Across Asia" exhibition, whose displays include a Tibetan Buddhist shrine and a Sri Lankan stupa (domed Buddhist shrine).
On your way to viewing the Sackler’s crown jewels in the subterranean galleries, you’ll first discover modern works. 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. On view through Feb. 3, 2019, for example, is Indian artist Subodh Gupta’s monumental installation Terminal. The artwork is a multispired tower created out of Indian household brass and stainless-steel vessels, a web of thread connecting the pieces together. The overall effect is of a shimmering religious structure, whether mosque, or temple, or church.
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.