Featured Initiatives

Starting with an Act of Faith

Charles Lang Freer founded our museum with a gift of his collection to the Smithsonian, including his library and archives. He also provided support for the construction of the building in addition to generous endowments so that his gallery would continue to foster an understanding of and appreciation for art. His gift was an act of faith: not only was the National Mall more of an idea than a reality in 1906, but Freer was giving over his life’s work to a nation with little background in supporting arts and culture and to a Smithsonian that was, at that time, almost entirely devoted to science and technology, with no real experience in managing, conserving, or exhibiting world-class art. One hundred years after Freer founded a gallery to address challenges he cared deeply about, we’re celebrating our centennial by asking questions our audiences are invested in. What does that mean in practice? We’re building on our strengths—the quality and depth of our collections, scholarship, and conservation—while also moving in new directions, experimenting, and telling new stories. As the National Museum of Asian Art, we feel a special responsibility to be more accessible and legible to the public as we enter our second century.

The Arts of Devotion

four People, led by a man in the orange robes of a Buddhist monk, kneel with their hands tented in prayer in an opulent red and gold room filled with a gong, sculptures, hanging scrolls, and bells.
Buddhist blessing ceremony of the Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room at the National Museum of Asian Art. Courtesy National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution/Photo by Robert Harrell

The Arts of Devotion is a five-year initiative at the National Museum of Asian Art that has been generously funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. The Arts of Devotion aims to further civil discourse around religion through the museum’s collections of Hindu and Buddhist art and arts of the Islamic world. This project focuses on the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. These religions are living traditions that have origins in the broad geographic area of Asia and are now found globally, including in the United States. The Arts of Devotion initiative engages with communities from these religious traditions as well as with other key communities to help deepen our ability to tell stories with the art works that reflect them. With our wealth of resources and experience, the National Museum of Asian Art has a responsibility to step forward in these difficult times and assume a leadership role in the museum field. We must model how to further the public’s understanding of Asian religions and encourage them to think more deeply about the artworks that reflect these religious practices and how these religions live on today.

Courtyard Accessibility

A brick-paved and tree-lined courtyard of a neoclassical building, illuminated and seen against a dusky sky
Courtyard of the National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution

As part of its centennial and in partnership with the Smithsonian’s Office of Planning, Design, and Construction, the one-hundred-year-old courtyard was renovated to include an accessible ramp, opening for the first time the central public space to those who need wheelchair access. The iconic fountain area can now serve as a respite for all the museum’s visitors. This multiyear, multimillion dollar project was completed in April 2023.



Diversifying the Museum Workforce

Several people sit around a table in an office while having a conversation.
Staff of the National Museum of Asian Art in conversation with Chase F. Robinson, Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, and Lonnie Bunch, 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Courtesy National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution

Internships provide formative experiences and opportunities that can shape the direction of a student’s career path. As the museum prepares to enter its second century amidst a historic reckoning about diversity, equity, and inclusion, we are committed to creating a culture that reflects our country and the cultures represented in our collections. To achieve this goal, the museum has instituted its first paid undergraduate summer internship program to ensure interns of all backgrounds are able to access a paid summer internship program. In partnership with Northern Virginia Community College and several other public colleges and universities, the museum welcomed its first class of paid interns in summer 2022. The museum has also launched the Cheng-Harrell Graduate Internship program. This academic year, part-time, paid opportunity is designed to foster interest and deliver training in museum work annually for five graduate students who may not otherwise have the resources to pursue a career in this professional sector. This program was made possible with a generous contribution from Tai-Heng Cheng.

Protection of Cultural Heritage

Several objects-including stone relief sculptures; a large, metal, patinated vessel; and a manuscript in a glass case-atop a table draped in a striped red, black, and yellow textile.
Repatriation ceremony hosted by the Embassy of the Republic of Yemen Government in Washington, DC. Courtesy National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution/Photo by Robert Harrell

Protecting the world’s shared cultural heritage has been at the heart of the museum’s mission since its founding. Today, we are redoubling our efforts to protect cultural heritage in areas represented in our collections by researching the issues in order to provide new solutions for endangered objects and hosting programs to call attention to areas of concern. We are collaborating with communities to define and implement shared stewardship practices and are providing capacity-building exchanges that will strengthen their museums and ensure their staff members have the expertise to protect their cultural heritage.


Provenance Research

A composite of three side-by-side images. On the far left: three stickers with collector and exhibition information on worn brown leather. In the middle: the base of a ceramic vessel with an inventory sticker affixed to the bottom. On the far right: a close-up view of the edge of a brown object with an inventory number written on it.
Interior of book cover with collector and exhibition stickers; Base of wine cup with excavation inventory sticker and museum accession number; Notched disk with David David-Weill’s collection inventory number.

Beginning in the early 2000s, the National Museum of Asian Art expanded on the Smithsonian’s centralized efforts to explore the provenance histories of objects across its collections. The museum’s provenance program deepens our commitment to scholarship and transparency of collections information. We hope it serves as a model of promoting international awareness, standardized research methodologies, and information exchange between the international museum community and the public