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Out with the horses, in with the tigers: Why a major Japanese art exhibit is getting a makeover halfway through its run

Tomoko Matsuo, right, a senior curator of the Chiba City Museum of Art in Japan, watches as large panels are moved for the National Gallery of Art’s “The Life of Animals in Japanese Art” exhibition. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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Starting in April, it took 18 workers 25 days to install more than 250 priceless pieces in “The Life of Animals in Japanese Art,” the National Gallery of Art’s summer exhibition that has delighted visitors and drawn critical raves.

But two weeks ago, about halfway through its 11-week run, the museum gave much of it a makeover. On purpose.

For five nights, the museum’s ground floor buzzed with after-hours activity as dozens of workers carried out a carefully orchestrated preservation measure, swapping out 47 works that had been predesignated to be replaced with 40 different pieces, and adjusting seven more to showcase a new part of their artistry. The whine of hand drills and whirring of automated lifts echoed through the serpentine galleries, where dollies stood by, stacked with boxes of ancient artifacts to unload. Every few minutes, the motion-sensor security system triggered an automated recording: “You are too close to the exhibit. Please stand back.”

The noise did not disturb Hiroshi Ikeda, an expert on Japanese armor from the Tokyo National Museum, who was installing an 18th-century boy’s suit of armor. With the patience of an artist and the agility of a dancer, Ikeda moved between the display case and a folding table, where elements of the armor were laid out, each on its own white pillow. Cradling one of the pieces, he removed his shoes and climbed onto the case’s base, where he crouched low to arrange it on the wooden stand.

For three hours, Ikeda and two assistants had worked to remove the first suit of armor and replace it with the child-size one crafted during the Edo period from iron, gold, silver, copper, leather, wood, lacquer, silk, hemp and horsehair. Only when the artifact, “Gusoku Armor with Deer Horns,” was assembled exactly to his liking did Ikeda step down from the base so the plexiglass case could be secured around it.

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“The Life of Animals in Japanese Art” ranks as one of the 10 largest exhibitions ever mounted by the National Gallery, with works on loan from 66 Japanese and 30 American collections. The week-long swap — an effort that required both heavy lifting and painstaking precision — makes it one of the museum’s most complex undertakings.

“In my 26 years, this is right at number one, no question,” Melissa Stegeman, the exhibition’s registrar, said.

The substitutions are intended to limit the objects’ exposure to light and are conditions of the loans from Japan, explained Mark Leithauser, the gallery’s chief of design.

“The switching is nonnegotiable. It’s basically the policy (of Japanese museums), although any private collector can do whatever they decide,” Leithauser said, explaining why some pieces will be on view for the entire run.

The exhibition is on par with two earlier Japanese shows presented by the National Gallery, “The Shaping of Daimyo Culture” in 1988 and “Edo: Art in Japan” in 1998, Leithauser said. Those also required substantial substitutions.

“It’s not a pain to do this. These things are in amazing condition and you want them to stay that way,” he said.

Some in the gallery couldn’t disguise their delight at the beauty of the objects being moved.

“You feel a little bad about the things you’re losing,” said Andrew Watt, a member of the design department. But its replacement is always a happy surprise, added his colleague, Elizabeth Parr.

The rotations are determined from the early stages of an exhibit’s development, with designers and curators collaborating to make the switch as straightforward as possible. The substitutions are usually different examples of the same type of object. For example, a pair of early 17th-century, six-panel screens depicting horses was replaced by a pair of equally arresting screens from 1822, each decorated with a tiger. Leithauser said the curators and designers worked to identify substitutions that work well with each other and combine to make the second half of the exhibit’s run just as strong as the first.

“There is no A list,” he said. “It’s three-dimensional tic-tac-toe. You have to think about how it’s going to look together.

“It’s sort of a brand-new show. A lot will feel familiar, but it has changed.”

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The substitution process had several steps. Carpenters removed the wood trim around the plexiglass and then the glass itself was taken down and stored on large A-frame dollies. With the cases opened, conservators and curators inspected the pieces before uniformed art handlers placed them on nearby tables or on blankets on the floor. A National Gallery conservator covered her mouth with her hand as she leaned over a robe, trying not to breath on the ancient silk as she scanned its surface with a flashlight. After the inspections, condition reports were filled out and signed by representatives of the loaning organization and the gallery. The artifacts were then carefully packed for storage.

The inspection process was repeated as the new items were installed. Art handlers moved the works into the cases, measuring the precise angles of the screens (traditionally 120 degrees) and exact inches from the edge of the case. The plexiglass panes were returned and taped, and the wood trim secured. The following morning, a team painted over the original wall text and new text describing the substituted artifact was silk-screened over it.

Leithauser explained that the cases were designed to adapt to the items in rotation. For the opening weeks, one case displayed a 19th-century boy’s festive silk garment with hand-painted ponies. Alongside it was a 19th-century silk robe made for newborns and decorated with a puppy, bamboo grass and snowflakes. A small platform was used to raise these robes — measuring 39 and 32 inches in length — so they would be displayed in the center of the case. After they were removed, the platform was taken out so a second pair of 19th-century robes — measuring 54 and 58 inches long — could be installed in their place.

The gallery doesn’t disclose the cost of its exhibitions, and it declined to provide a price tag for the week-long changeover.

The new items will remain on view until the exhibition closes Aug. 18. The gallery will stay open until 8 p.m. daily from Aug. 3 to Aug. 18. The exhibition moves to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from Sept. 22 to Dec. 8.

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