'Window Views' New Meaning During Coronavirus : The Picture Show Visual artists are focusing anew on windows in this age of social isolation. An online array of photos from the Smithsonian shines new light on windows' cultural, artistic and symbolic meaning.
NPR logo A Collection Of 'Window Views' Takes On New Meaning During The Coronavirus Crisis

A Collection Of 'Window Views' Takes On New Meaning During The Coronavirus Crisis

Looking out of an adobe window. Salvador, Brazil, 1963. Elliott Erwitt/National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution hide caption

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Elliott Erwitt/National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Looking out of an adobe window. Salvador, Brazil, 1963.

Elliott Erwitt/National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Windows are points of transition between two physical worlds. These days, they've taken on new significance for visual artists, who are using them as a way of expressing the emotions that come with life in lockdown.

Inspired by this renewed focus, "Window Views," a new online collection of photographs from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, explores the architectural feature and its symbolic and cultural meanings.

Journalists in the White House press room. Aug. 8, 1974. Fred J. Maroon/National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution hide caption

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Fred J. Maroon/National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Journalists in the White House press room. Aug. 8, 1974.

Fred J. Maroon/National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Self-portrait in dark window, 1973. Malcolm Cosgrove-Davies/National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution hide caption

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Malcolm Cosgrove-Davies/National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Self-portrait in dark window, 1973.

Malcolm Cosgrove-Davies/National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Windows "serve as barriers between the outside and inside, the public and private, the external and the internal, and dividers and thresholds between danger and safety," curator Shannon Perich told NPR. "Windows also control light, something photography is dependent upon."

Working from home, Perich assembled an initial collection of 79 images — more will be added — drawn from the museum's archive.

As Perich's work shifts online, important sensory aspects of curation are lost in the electronic process, she said.

"We are definitely missing the experience of seeing the physical photographs to understand scale, processes, paper texture, tones and colors, use, conditions and so on, which impacts how we understand and interpret the physical object," Perich said.

Gelatin silver print, semiprivate room in a new wing at a Petoskey, Mich., hospital, circa 1945. Hedrich Blessing Photographers/National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution hide caption

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Hedrich Blessing Photographers/National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Gelatin silver print, semiprivate room in a new wing at a Petoskey, Mich., hospital, circa 1945.

Hedrich Blessing Photographers/National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Toddler girl in a car window (left). Last photograph of mother, 1946. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution hide caption

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National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Toddler girl in a car window (left). Last photograph of mother, 1946.

National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

"Window Views" came about in response to a project by photographer and educator Rebekah Modrak called "Window Serenade." Modrak's assignment prompted visual artists to use windows as "sites of expression."

With the current coronavirus stay-at-home orders as backdrop, Perich decided to focus primarily on domestic and intimate spaces. Her initial hope was that a wide variety of images would inspire student photographers.

"Perhaps for others it might help them see their own windows and spaces differently," Perich said. "And if anyone simply finds some joy or satisfaction in one photograph, well, that's great, too."

Carbon print, the window garden, 1895. Rudolf Eickemeyer Jr./National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution hide caption

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Rudolf Eickemeyer Jr./National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Carbon print, the window garden, 1895.

Rudolf Eickemeyer Jr./National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

View from hotel window, Tulsa, Okla. Elizabeth Howe Bliss/National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution hide caption

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Elizabeth Howe Bliss/National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

View from hotel window, Tulsa, Okla.

Elizabeth Howe Bliss/National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Brick wall and window. Puerto Rico, 1969. Elliott Erwitt/National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution hide caption

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Elliott Erwitt/National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Brick wall and window. Puerto Rico, 1969.

Elliott Erwitt/National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution