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Wayne State University Library System offers new online resource to bring Whistler’s Peacock Room into the digital realm

February 19th, 2013

Wayne State University and the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art recently announced the launch of a new online resource, “The Story of the Beautiful: Freer, Whistler, and Their Points of Contact,” a comprehensive guide to James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room and its dynamic history ( The Peacock Room, an elaborately painted former dining room and one of the most famous masterpieces in the Freer’s collection, will celebrate its 90th anniversary of being on public view in 2013. “The Story of the Beautiful” provides visitors with a deeply contextualized way to understand the room, its contents and its narratives, using more than 400 digital objects and a wealth of archival materials.

“‘This project animates the digital archive in a way that brings static, academic material to life,’” said Joshua Neds-Fox, coordinator for the Digital Publishing unit at the Wayne State University Library System.

Users can explore two compelling 360-degree virtual versions of the room: one as it looked in Victorian London, filled with Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, the other as it appeared in 1908 after museum founder Charles Lang Freer reassembled it in his Detroit mansion and filled its shelves with subtly glazed ceramics from all over Asia. By clicking on each object in the room, visitors can zoom in on high-res images. Interactive maps and timelines, supplemented by letters, diary entries, and vintage photographs from the Charles Lang Freer Papers, provide insight into Freer’s life story and his approach to collecting.

Freer was a significant leader in the Detroit arts community, fostering its growth. He was an active supporter of the Detroit Museum of Art (known today as the Detroit Institute of Arts), the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts (now the College for Creative Studies), the Detroit Club, and the University of Michigan. He also championed Mary Chase Perry, founder of Pewabic Pottery, and commissioned Pewabic tiles and vessels for his home. Freer’s art collections remained in the house until his death in 1919, when they were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution.

Project coordinators from the Freer’s American Art department and the Wayne State Library’s Digital Publishing and Discovery Services units intend to offer the site as a major resource for scholars, teachers and students, as well as a deeper experience for museum-goers. The art work and period documents were part of Charles Lang Freer’s original bequest to the Freer Gallery, while Wayne State University, which now owns Freer’s Detroit mansion, provided the technical expertise to build the website.

“This site makes an architectural and decorative icon of the Aesthetic movement universally accessible in a way that we couldn’t previously,” said Lee Glazer, project lead and curator of American art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries. “The inclusion of so many layers of visual and archival material is not only exciting, it’s invaluable to further research.”

“The Story of the Beautiful” site takes its name from Whistler’s belief that “the story of the beautiful is already complete—hewn in the marbles of the Parthenon— and broidered, with the birds, upon the fan of Hokusai,” a quote typical of the Aesthetic sentiment that art and beauty transcend time, place and historical circumstances and resonate across cultures for all those who have the power to “see beauty,” as Freer put it.

“Despite Whistler’s claim that ‘the story of the beautiful’ is unchanging, the Peacock Room’s dynamic history tells us otherwise,” said Glazer. “Even though it was created 130 years ago, it has been adapted by each owner to their own use, similar to the ways that we have adapted technology to transform our understanding of it. Digital storytelling is the Peacock Room’s next chapter.”

For more information on the Freer House, where the Peacock Room was housed when it was in Detroit, visit: