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September 1, 2011

Panic Room: Treasures of the National Gallery in the event of WWIII


Long story short: National Gallery of Art curator of prints, watercolors, drawings and rare illustrated books Andrew Robison is responsible for 106,000 works.

Of these he selects 74 works of paper — pieces of the highest value — which are placed in seven boxes — four for European holdings, three for American — in two separate storerooms, said containers in the event of catastrophe to be quickly spirited away from Washington to an undisclosed location.


Excerpts from Ned Martel's August 15, 2011 Washington Post front page story about the care and maintenance of the gallery's holy of holies follows.


In 1979, with Washington worried about 52 hostages in Tehran and terrorist threats at home, Robison's boss asked him to create a big container for works of the highest value. Because his works are so fragile and light-sensitive, they live most of their lives in protective storage, going on the walls for viewing only in short spurts.

In the two storerooms that Robison asked not be photographed or their locations disclosed, the black, cloth-lined boxes, each the shape of very large books, bear the label "WW3," drawn in calligraphy. These in-case-of-World-War-III containers lie ready for any possibility, and in Robison's absence, security guards have a floor plan that shows their exact location, like an X on a pirate map.


Showing off a box's contents, he growled lusty approval of Peter Paul Rubens’s huge reclining Pan, which Robison counts among the most powerful in the WW3 boxes. He admires beautiful women in the works of art as robustly as Rubens did when he sketched a model for a figure in "The Assumption of the Virgin" — "Clearly he was in love with this woman," Robison said, holding up the black chalk sketch.

Though he must know prices and trends, the art market, he said, cannot be the arbiter of what gets included in the WW3 boxes. "Money was just not a good guide," he said.


To merit inclusion in the box, each work gets a thorough going-over by Robison’s team. The first criterion is aesthetic: Is it pleasing to the eye, well-made in both concept and execution? Next, historic: does it say enough about when it was made and who made it? Of all the moments of human history to which art can transport us, is this one worth remembering?

And then he has a more nebulous but convincing factor that Robison merely calls "power." Of all the things that could be demonstrated with lines on paper, does this — through imagery alone — have a pronounced psychological impact? Does it change minds, just by viewing it?


"Very great quality will be more intriguing, more telling, more meaningful for visitors. It won't be as meaningful if we had some sort of spread — one work from every great artist. It'd be more meaningful if we had really great works regardless of whether the artist is normally known as great or not."

Only 27 percent of what Robison first put in the boxes in 1979 is still inside them.



Slide show of a number of Robison's selections (some of which appear above) here.

From the top down: Rembrandt self-portrait in chalk; Winslow Homer watercolor sketch for "Hounds and Hunter" (1892); German artist Caspar David Friedrich's "Moonrise on an Empty Shore," sepia washes over graphite on woven paper; Edward Hopper's watercolor "Haskell's House" (1924); "Two Women on the Shore," woodblock print by Edvard Munch; "Pan Reclining" by Peter Paul Rubens.


September 1, 2011 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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Thanks. That was a neat (and keen!) post.

Posted by: jim` | Sep 1, 2011 8:44:41 PM

I knew Hopper's watercolor reminded me of something...

Posted by: Flautist | Sep 1, 2011 6:25:40 PM

These will be in Bentonville shortly....

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Sep 1, 2011 4:44:00 PM

Darth Vader and the McKenna chick? Srsly?

Posted by: Becs | Sep 1, 2011 2:37:07 PM

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