Some people associate Washington’s cherry blossoms with the picturesque scenery of the Tidal Basin in full bloom. Others link the flowers with an uptick in tourists and traffic to the nation’s capital. Either way, the city’s annual cherry blossom festival is a time-honored tradition, one that celebrates both nature and community.
In conjunction with this year’s festival — and local officials’ attempts to limit crowds due to the pandemic — the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art is hosting a virtual experience centered around Japanese artwork and the festival.
The online portal not only served as a good alternative to avoid the crowds, but it also now offers fans of the blossoms a chance to explore them even though the pink petals have now come and gone.
“This portal is a one-stop-shop experience where you can immerse yourself in cherry blossoms, art and art collections,” said Frank Feltens, the Japan Foundation’s assistant curator of Japanese art.
As a curator of multiple galleries at the National Museum of Asian Art, Feltens guides the virtual tour for the Hokusai exhibition, one of the portal’s key attractions. Katsushika Hokusai is famous for woodblock prints like “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” as well as the ink and color on silk “Boy Viewing Mount Fuji.” While the Hokusai exhibition does not specifically focus on cherry blossoms, patrons can reserve special tours that do.
Besides gallery tours, the museum’s web portal includes a series of live workshops, lectures and performances. Three times a week, the museum hosts meditation and mindfulness seminars through the portal. Users can download free Zoom backgrounds and buy Japanese-themed products through the Smithsonian’s online store. To make the exhibit more accessible to a non-U.S. audience, the museum has also recorded several of the videos in Japanese.
According to Feltens, cherry blossoms have a long history within Japanese art and culture, dating back to the 16th century.
“Because they are so fragile and scatter at the slightest wind, the cherry blossoms are the embodiments of evanescence. And the blossoms don’t just fall off, they scatter like snow. That’s all very aesthetically appealing,” said Feltens. “It was only a matter of time before Japanese artists took notice.”
Several centuries after the blossoms first gained traction in Japanese art, they were on their way overseas. The flowering cherry trees (“sakura” in Japanese), were first planted in 1912, when Japan sent 3,020 trees to Washington, D.C. Then-first lady Helen Herron Taft and the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted the first two cherry trees on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin.
In return, the United States sent flowering dogwood trees to Japan. Today, the blossoms represent flourishing diplomatic and cultural ties between the two countries.
Many of the gallery’s pieces depicting cherry blossoms come in the form of large screens that would be decorative items in private homes. The purpose of these pieces was to make people feel as though they were sitting among cherry blossom trees, even when the trees weren’t in bloom. Noting the exhibit’s virtual format, Feltens said that “celebrating the cherry blossoms online this year is not far off from the traditional use of the paintings we have in our collection.”