Artifacts as Ambience: Art, Antique and Artifacts in the Nation's Capital





For many visitors, the nation's capital has two notable and distinct aspects. On the one side there is the business of government, and on the other a wealth of art and historical museums. However, like everything else in Washington, the distinctions often get blurred. All three branches of government have extensive art, antique and artifact collections—with curators in charge of them, to boot—that probably add more ambience than cultural enlightenment to visitors. But, of course, who expects the Treasury Department to be a place of culture?

"We have 5,000 to 7,000 objects in the collection, depending on how you count objects," Richard Cote, the Treasury Department's curator, said. Among the notable pieces in the collection are portraits of Treasury secretaries, dating back to Alexander Hamilton ("That's our core collection," he said), and various artworks produced for the federal government during the New Deal. There are also archival photographs (of the construction of the Treasury Building), postage stamps, war-bond posters and other two-dimensional pieces that line the corridors and office walls, and the rooms themselves are packed with sculpted ornaments, desks and chairs that date back to the 19th century.

Basically, there is one continuing exhibition going on: The history of the Treasury Department. One finds the same type of exhibition at the Senate Office Building (portraits of Senate leaders, sculpted busts of the nation's vice presidents, furniture used by senators and assorted whatnot), the House of Representatives (portraits of speakers, furniture, things best described as artifacts), the Supreme Court (sculpted busts and oil portraits of justices, photographs of the Supreme Court building, furniture and memorabilia), the Federal Reserve (paintings, many on the theme of currency, and portraits of Fed chairmen), and the Office of the Architect of the Capitol (sculptures, portraits of members of Congress, photographs of the Capitol). There are also collections at the State Department (paintings, furniture, decorative objects), Blair House (paintings, antique household furnishings), the Defense Department (combat art) and the White House.

About 600,000 visitors tour the White House every year, passing through eight rooms and looking into two others, where selected items from a collection of 5,000 to 6,000 pieces of fine and decorative art (carpets, furniture, paintings and porcelains) are on view, according to William Allman, the White House's curator...

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