Ithaca, NY—Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art recently opened their renovated galleries of Asian art, which occupy the entire fifth floor of the landmark I. M. Pei building.

More than a decade in the making, plans for the renovation began in 2000 and were realized as part of the Museum’s overall expansion plan. Ellen Avril, the Johnson’s chief curator and curator of Asian art since 1998, directed the project.

The galleries on the fifth floor, known for its 360-degree views of Ithaca, were completely demolished in July 2010 to create a total transformation. Of the more than eight thousand works in the Asian collection, the fifth floor can now display more than four hundred at any time, up from around one hundred fifty. The 50 percent increase in square footage was accomplished by relocating office and storage space to the new wing.

In addition to the new floor plan, the galleries now feature twenty-one state-of-the-art, German-engineered glass cases of various sizes, which use low-iron glass to create a truer, more accurate color environment. These cases are used by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other major museums worldwide.

Galleries are now devoted to the art of more Asian cultures and time periods, creating a progression for the visitor to see how cultures have interacted and influenced each other over time. This range begins with a gallery of ancient Near Eastern and Central Asian art, featuring inscribed cuneiform tablets, ceramics, and sculpture from ancient Iraq and Iran, and ends with a gallery for modern and contemporary art, and another gallery for contemporary Asian ceramics, a strength of the museum’s collection.

Highlights from the Chinese collection, the largest portion of the museum’s holdings, include pre-Chinese ceramics from 5,000 to 2,000 BC, tomb furnishings from the Shang through Tang periods, Buddhist devotional art, scholars’ paintings and decorative arts, and a gallery of Ming and Qing dynasty porcelains.

The gallery of Japanese art is now large enough to display room-sized folding screens, only seen in temporary exhibitions before. Other Japanese highlights are Buddhist art including Zen works, and art and objects related to the tea ceremony.

New galleries, for the first time, feature groups of art from Korea, India, Southeast Asia (including Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Burma), West Asia (Iran, Yemen, Syria, and other Islamic cultures), and Tibetan and Nepalese art made for Tantric Buddhist use.

This collection is one of our great strengths due to the vision of Martie Young, Cornell Professor of the History of Art and curator from 1959 to 1998, and the support of George and Mary Rockwell, who not only bequeathed their wonderful collection to the Johnson but also left a financial legacy that allows us to continue to acquire important works of Asian art.

For major grants to support this renovation, the Museum is grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and many private donors.


The Johnson Museum has a permanent collection of over 35,000 works of art from Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America. The museum building was designed by I. M. Pei. Funds for the building were donated by Cornell alumnus Herbert F. Johnson, late president and chairman of S C Johnson. The building opened in 1973.


The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, located on the campus of Cornell University, is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is free. The Museum is completely accessible for mobility-impaired visitors, and a wheelchair is available in the lobby. Metered parking is available in the lot next to the Museum. For more information, please call 607 255-6464. Visit the Museum’s website at The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art is a proud member of Ithaca’s Discovery Trail: