Universities put on a show

by Setsuko Kamiya

University museums have long been part of the cultural landscape in many western countries, serving not only academic communities but the general public too.

Founded in 1683, the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford in England is widely credited as being the world’s first public museum, blazing a trail followed by many other distinguished European universities in the 18th century. In the United States, meanwhile, after the renowned Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University opened in 1866, other prestigious institutions were quick to follow suit.

In Japan, by contrast, although universities were established after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, it wasn’t until recently that museums came to exist on campus. Thus, while there’s likely an interesting university museum just down the road, few people will probably know of it, since those open to the public are barely out of swaddling clothes.

Over the past decade, opening or revamping museums has become something of a fashion among Japanese universities bent on projecting themselves to the public and increasing their appeal in the years since student numbers peaked in 1992. As well, the aging society is generating an increasing demand for lifelong learning facilities, which university museums are well placed to cater for.

This trend was given impetus by a 1996 report from the Science Council of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, which encouraged universities to establish museums to preserve and organize their collections for the benefit of students and local citizens, and also to apply new perspectives and research technologies to them to glean new findings.

Since then, national institutions such as the universities of Tokyo, Kyoto, Tohoku and Hokkaido, one after another, reorganized their resource facilities and opened new museums, while many private universities have made similar efforts to attract visitors.

In many cases these collections are extensive, and reflect the history and characteristics of the faculties and schools. Previously not easily accessible to “outsiders,” many of the items were, until recently, just kept in store rooms by different departments, sometimes unlabeled and generally undervalued.

Now, though, according to research led by Hideaki Iyoku, the chief official of Meiji University Museum, as of this January, 176 schools had a total of 266 museums, botanical gardens and other public facilities — compared with just 104 schools with a total of 145 museum facilities five years before. Clearly, numbers are rising fast, and it is a trend that is likely to continue.

“A university museum means that the school has some history that led to its collection of intellectual properties, and that it is willing to return that to society,” Iyoku said. “For some prospective students, it’s becoming a criterion that the school has what it takes to survive the competition between universities.”

As chief of one of Japan’s pioneer university museums, founded in 1929, Iyoku welcomes the trend. “University museums have lots of valuable and interesting intellectual resources that are untapped, and they should be recognized by more people,” he said.

So, why not take up that suggestion? In this week’s TIMEOUT, staff writers check out some of the Tokyo area’s university museums to see what wonders they contain — and perhaps to whet your appetite to visit them, or a similar museum near you.

For other stories in our package, please click the following links:

Bygone botanists bring the past to life
Rural revelations and a sake to go
Woe betide the accused
Drop by and tune in to a world of music
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