Colorful cloisonné tables gleam in front of dusty shelves holding weathered architectural pieces salvaged from Asian buildings. A clay soldier kneels between two crowded shelves, and intricate Asian screens lean against the walls.
There is a lot of beauty in that basement, much of it donated by a couple from Maryland, long-time museum benefactors Oliver Foo and his late wife, Pei-hwa.
Since 2001, the Foos have been donating Asian artifacts from their personal collection, many of which have been on display in the Arts of Asia exhibit hall on the second floor of the Berman.
Last month, the Foos gave a final donation of more than 700 items, bringing the total worth of the Berman’s collection to $1.1 million.
The narrow aisles in the basement are dark and crowded, but regardless of their method of storage, Susan Doss, collections assistant at the museum, knows the value of the treasures. As she works — cataloguing, photographing and labeling each piece — it sometimes makes her nervous.
Wednesday morning, she and some of her teenage volunteers were wrapping up some 200- and 300-year-old chocolate pots. Doss pantomimed how she gingerly handled the fragile pots, holding her hands well away from her body and using only her fingers. One of her volunteers, a teenage boy well over 6 feet tall, wouldn’t even attempt it, she said, laughing.
Foo said his wife collected Asian artifacts over some 25 years. The two decided to donate the bulk of the items in preparation for a move from their home in Maryland to California, where their daughters live.
“We have a whole houseful of things, and what’s going to happen to that?” Foo said. His wife said to “pick some good ones” and call the Berman Museum.
Pei-hwa Foo died last year, before the donation could be completed.
The Foos considered several things when they chose where to donate the collection, including what would happen to the items after their donation.
His wife loved Asian art and culture, and she wanted other people to learn to appreciate it as well, Foo said.
“A lot of people do not know the Chinese furniture, the Chinese art and that kind of thing, and it would be good to let them know it is different,” he said.
Although their home in Maryland was close to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., Foo said that if they donated the items there, they would most likely end up in the basement.
“My wife and I would like the things to be seen,” he said. “That made a lot of difference.”
The couple met some people from the Berman Museum at an antiques show in Atlanta and hit it off. The Foos knew a donation to the Berman would be displayed immediately. But much of the reason they chose the Berman was the personality of the people they met, Foo said. His wife ultimately made the choice.
“It all depends on personal feeling, where you go,” Foo said. “They are very, very nice and straightforward people.”
Cheryl Bragg, executive director of the museum complex, said she is grateful to the Foos for their generosity. The Berman board decided to name the Asian exhibit hall after the couple, and has already installed a brass plaque with their names at the entrance.
The Foos were careful in choosing the items they donated, creating a well-rounded exhibit for the museum, Bragg said.
“They would give us some porcelain, some pottery, some furniture, some tapestries and all of the different media,” she said. “It gives us really, truly, a world-class collection.”
It will take several years to cycle the pieces through display in the gallery, but that is a nice problem to have, Bragg said.
This latest donation includes about 500 books, valued at about $40,000, Doss said.
The museum hopes to create a research library in a room across the hall from the Asian gallery. The collection contains some books written in Chinese, but about 75 percent are written in English and many are reference books that are now out of print.
“We have a nice reciprocating program with Jacksonville State University,” Bragg said. “We could make that available to them if they’d like to use that.”
But anyone who is interested in learning more about Chinese history, or an item they might have, would be able to use the library to do some research, she said. The library should be open by January.
Some of the newest items are already on display, said Margie Connor, marketing manager for the museum complex. But others will have to wait as the museum works out the best way to display them. One such exhibit is a collection of about 100 puppets.
Right now, the museum is trying to work out how to display the puppets, showing off their costumes but not putting stress on the strings, which have become fragile.
The museum already knows it will be displaying the puppets on a rotating basis, about 18 to 20 at a time, in an area that now displays swords.
The museum plans to have the first of the puppets on display in time for Museum Day on Sept. 8.
Star staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545.