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Seeing Cherries

March 14–July 2018 | Drawing from the Rare Book and Ephemera Collections, this exhibit traces the story of cherry blossoms in Japan and the United States and their place in the changing relationship between the two nations over the past century.

Cherry blossoms have come to be beloved and emblematic fixtures of Washington, DC, as the end result of long processes of cultural exchange across a complex global history. While cherry trees have always been valued for the beauty of their blossoms in Japan, European interest in cherry trees lay primarily in their fruit, making for a tepid reception of Japanese cherries that only began to change once Japan opened its borders to the West. In 1912, Japan’s gift of cherry trees in the Tidal Basin made cherry blossoms widely accessible to the American public, allowing them to enter Western consciousness at an unprecedented scale as both symbols of Japan and as objects of universal appeal.

By the 1930s, Japanese cherry blossoms were already deeply ingrained in the public’s imagination of Washington, DC, but their association with Japan meant that, during the Second World War, the public had to reckon with the ambiguity of their place in the city. As gifts symbolizing the changing relationship between two countries and two cultures, the cherry trees on the Tidal Basin thus give witness to cultural shifts and the negotiation of identity at the intersection of the so-called native and the foreign, the internal and the external, the local and the global.

Seeing Cherries draws from the Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book and Ephemera Collections, and features historic pictures of the Tidal Basin, Japanese depictions of cultural practices surrounding cherries, and a sketchbook by landscape architect Ron Henderson, who recorded his experiences following the blossoming of cherry trees across Japan.


Programs in urban landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks are supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through their initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities, intended to foster the joint contributions that the humanities and the design and planning disciplines may make to understanding the processes and effects of burgeoning urbanization.