An image of Encountering the Buddha, an exhibition which was on display before the museum closed.
An image of Encountering the Buddha, an exhibition which was on display before the museum closed. Credit: Colleen Dugan

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Debra Diamond’s work involves viewing million-dollar art pieces. The experience, she says, just isn’t the same on a computer screen.

Diamond is a curator at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, now known as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. Like many of us, she has been working from home for the past few months.

She is collaborating with colleagues from around the world on A Splendid Land: Paintings from Royal Udaipur, India and Writing My Truth: The Mughal Emperor Babur, which will be installed at the Sackler Gallery. Exactly what these exhibitions will look like post-pandemic is yet to be determined. 

“When we talk about our museum reopening, we’re talking about: Should we re-hang our artwork so they’re further away? How will we move people around in these spaces?” Diamond says. So she has designed multiple options to suit different scenarios.

Diamond is also preparing for the July and August web discussion series “Religion and Spirituality in the Museum,” which will explore how museums can provide space for solace and spiritual reflection, at a time when many in our society crave both.

City Paper spoke with Diamond about her work and got her insights into learning about art and different cultures—and arranging living room furniture—while we stay at home.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

WCP: What do you miss about viewing artworks in person?

Debra Diamond: I work on Indian paintings—they’re on paper and they’re often handheld size and they have opaque watercolor that’s been burnished—so it’s a little bit shiny. And they’ve got areas of pure gold on them. So when you pick up one of those paintings, the light strikes it in a million different ways and the gold will flicker, and it’s an entirely different experience looking at an inert reproduction. 

So you miss all that. Plus I also [look at artwork] for pleasure, like when I get anxious. Or when there’s too many meetings or some crap bureaucracy is happening. If you work at the Freer and Sackler, you can go into the galleries or into the garden. It’s quite special to work in a museum. Maybe all museum people say that whether they’re curators or not. All of my colleagues, every time I’ve spoken [with them] over the years, there’s something about museums that’s really attracted them. That feeling of calm and space, or excitement, or visitors, but everyone has some pretty intense connection to objects. 

WCP: Has being away from art during the pandemic increased your appreciation for it?

DD: No, I already drank that Kool-Aid a long, long time ago. But it might have increased my appreciation for museums. The really nice thing about D.C.: You can so easily dip in because they’re free, most of them, so you can dip in and look at one thing, like when I walk home. Maybe that I miss.

WCP: What’s the first thing you’ll do when museums are open again?

DD: That requires me to think about a time when we don’t have COVID germs floating around. So let me try to project myself to a space I haven’t been in in a long time. I think I might just want to go to the permanent gallery in the National Gallery [of Art], really, and look at a Vermeer again. I might just want to go walk around all of the museums. 

I didn’t realize ’til you asked me that question how much I haven’t thought about a post-COVID world. I have an exhibition coming up, well, it was going to be in October, and now it might be moved further to February, and I’ve designed it already for two different galleries. I designed it for virtual, for real, for this gallery, for that gallery, if we need to keep the paintings this far apart. These tedious details are maybe creating all these sorts of


What will I do [when things reopen]? I’ll just do it all. I’ll walk through all of our galleries for sure. I’ll visit my Tibetan shrine again. I’ll stop somewhere and have a great cup of coffee.

WCP: What will returning to the museum mean for your work?

DD: You can put two artworks together—what do they say, a painting is worth a thousand words? Well, you can put two paintings together and they can be worth a hundred thousand words, like they can sing when you put them together. Or they can be inert. Or they can actually fight with one another, too. So I want to make sure our combinations sing. I haven’t seen all of our combinations—we didn’t put them all together yet. So I want to look at those and I want to think about that. Should they be 2 feet apart or 2.5 feet apart. It’s not only a question of COVID and how far apart they should be. It’s like what’s the distance between two works where there’s magic and it sings.

On the day when you’re actually installing, there may be eight or nine people there. You don’t have a lot of time. You can’t take a million-dollar object and have people move it around too often. It wouldn’t be good for the artwork. When I get in there, I’ll have a better chance of figuring out these sorts of magic distances and ratios when I can make objects sing.

Actually, everybody I think knows it from their own houses: When you arrange living room furniture, you get the angle just right and then it kind of pops into place. I don’t want to say I’m decorating when I create exhibitions because it’s far more profound—we’re telling stories that are really quite deep—but if you hang them in a way that’s quite eloquent, they’re all the more powerful.

WCP: What tips would you give to people who are exploring art digitally during this time?

DD: This is an amazing time for learning. I think this is a really great time to hear curators and museum directors talk about works in their collection. So if you do it from TED Talks or museum websites or YouTube or a university site, after, when you go to the gallery, you’ll have this background, you’ll have all this knowledge, and it will be really great. And you’ll appreciate it even more.

In the evenings, now we’re called upon to sort of examine how we perpetuate injustice. So the websites I’ve been going to have shifted. All of the new learning I’ve been doing is about race and justice and equity. It’s not only about art, though, it’s also to learn about different cultures.

WCP: What are some benefits you’ve experienced in this time?

DD: We can meet with people who are on the other side of the world. So one thing is that we have more collaboration, in some ways, than we did before. I’ve been running all of these webinars [and] workshops that are about art and religion. And our speakers now can come from all over the world. 

We received a grant last year that would enable us to think about how we can present Asian religions in more profound ways through the visual arts. We designed these small workshops with a few invited speakers and a couple of selected staff, because we always have to think about money, right. Maybe we would have had a maximum of 20 people before at a workshop on religion and spirituality and the visual arts. All of a sudden, we had 60 people. So I am learning together with my colleagues. We have this opportunity to learn together, which for me is great fun. That’s a new and better thing, I think, for our museum. 

WCP: Do you think virtual offerings like these webinars will continue post COVID-19?

DD: I think so. One thing is I think most of us are hungry for real experiences. We all really miss that and we want that back. But the other thing is there’s so many virtues to virtual meetings. There’s things we can do in virtual meetings that we could never do before. We can bring together scholars from different parts of the world. Everybody is always limited by money and visa issues and now we can create these conversations with our colleagues across the world.

WCP: What are you learning from these times?

DD: Aside from the fact that it’s terrifying. For us, for the museum, this is an opportunity to examine our practice. One is in terms of racial justice and equity and more inclusiveness. And people are quite serious about trying to see if we can change. We have this little space where we can reflect and maybe we can make some real adjustments. I’m not even an optimist and I think that.