James Hampton's Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly, ca. 1950-1964, mixed media, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of anonymous donors, 1970.353.1-.116
It seemed strangely appropriate that the art handlers were not wearing any shoes as they came in and out of the freshly painted niche on the first floor of the American Art Museum's west wing. The tradition of removing footwear before entering a sacred space is commonly practiced in a wide variety of cultures throughout the world. They held glittering altars, offertory tables, and crowns with the same care given to reliquaries and shrines of centuries past. Yet the pieces being carried were not adorned in ancient gold and jewels but rather aluminum foil, cardboard cutouts, and a wealth of other found objects from the mid twentieth century. Their shoes were not removed because a religious convention required it, but because they didn't want their sneakers to mar the fresh paint covering the floor of the exhibition niche. It was a fitting scene for the reinstallation of James Hampton's Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly.
Removed in late August for an intensive cleaning and treatment process, the Hampton Throne was recently returned to the public's view. Each component of Hampton's spiritual environment has been painstakingly cleaned. Corrosion was removed from some areas of the aluminum foil that covers most of the work and tears were mended in others. While these objects were being treated, their space was being built. A new ventilation system and architectural space were prepared by mid November and days later the reinstallation began.
Over the course of a day and half, each piece of the throne was carefully loaded onto a specially made cart, moved into the niche, and placed into configuration. Leslie Umberger, the museum's Curator for Folk and Self-Taught Art, was joined by Objects Conservator, Helen Ingalls, and Exhibitions Specialist, Jerry Hovanec, to oversee and coordinate the reinstallation. The team ensured that the alignment of each component reflected Hampton's vision and presented the work as an aesthetic whole. Working from back to front and left to right, the placement of the objects paralleled the symmetry of their creation. With the mounting of the final seven crowns in the foreground of the niche, the reinstallation of the Throne was complete.
James Hampton's Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly is undoubtedly one of the jewels of the American Art collection. We encourage you to visit the shimmering reinstallation the next time you come to the museum and as the panel above the throne proclaims, "FEAR NOT", you don't need to remove your shoes to see it.
To hear more about the Hampton Throne and its recent conservation treatment, be sure to attend the free Conservation of Our Collection talk on January 9 at 12:30 PM (plan to meet in the museum lobby at 8th and G Street entrance). Speak with our Conservation Technician, Susan Edwards, and Conservator, Helen Ingalls, who also participated in the Throne's previous installation just before the museum reopened in 2006 (in fact, take a look at a time lapse film we made of that installation process).