Seeing anew

Experiencing the RISD Museum's renovated galleries
By GREG COOK  |  July 9, 2014

A CALMING PRESENCE Ther 12th-century Dainichi Nyorai Buddha.

The aim of the RISD Museum’s eight newly renovated galleries for its permanent collection of fashion and Egyptian and Asian art seems to be “quiet contemplation.” The results, which debuted at the museum (224 Benefit St, Providence) last month, are successfully serious, serene, and sedate. Which makes sense for the educational institution. But I wonder.

Because what we’re talking about here is death, royal dragons, slinky fashion, and the beloved ancient Egyptian mummy and colossal wooden Buddha. This should be as cool as Game of Thrones.

And it does achieve that sense of drama at moments, like the dim corner gallery where the 12th-century seated Dainichi Nyorai Buddha looms. At nearly 10 feet tall, it’s said to be “the largest wooden Japanese sculpture in the United States.” Originally the main figure of worship in a Japanese temple, the renovations show it off with “new, soft lighting.” Feel the mood of the closed eyes, the weathered hands. The intentionally dramatic display helps the Buddha radiate silence and calm and power.

Down the hall sits an 18th-century Japanese bridal palanquin — a black lacquered box carriage with a curved roof decorated with gold moldings and family crests. The bride would have ridden inside the box, carried on the shoulders of male servants. The rear wall inside is decorated with a crane, a tortoise, and other auspicious symbols. It still signals prestige and wealth.

Surrounding cases display sumptuous attire — an 18th-century Chinese imperial silk and gold court robe with a dragon slithering through curling blue clouds across its breast and a two-century old silk and gold Japanese No Theater costume decorated with chrysanthemums.

The familiar mummy of the 3rd-century BCE Egyptian priest Nesmin is back, displayed for the first time with his coffin open. The lid — a classic gold-faced, blue-haired, bearded figure decorated with cobras, vultures, suns, and deities — and corpse and case are displayed on separate shelves, above each other. The feel is detached and clinical, rather than channeling the haunting glittery macabre that is the real reason we love mummies.

These $2.7 million renovations to the sixth floor over two years cap off a seven-year, $8.4 million renovation of the museum’s 1926 Radeke Building, one of five buildings that make up the museum complex.

The museum’s historical Asian and Egyptian collections are remarkable for a mid-sized museum — be sure to note little things like the Egyptian burial hippo made from the blue-green ceramic faience and decorated with a bird, butterfly, and Nile River reeds — but limited.

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