There is a fundamental problem with the Tokyo National Museum (TNM), which I come up against time and time again. In a nutshell, the venue is too big for its exhibits and too small for its audience. This is underlined yet again by the latest exhibition “National Treasures of Japan.”
Typically, special exhibitions at TNM feature several exhibits that, in addition to their aesthetic merits, are officially designated national treasures and are also items of religious or historical significance. This means they tend to receive plenty of TV and other media coverage, which boosts audience numbers. Also, the fact that the exhibits have more than mere aesthetic appeal gives visitors other reasons to come, adding to the numbers. This especially applies to anything related to Buddhism, a draw for older visitors.
The latest show held at the museum’s Heiseikan building is exactly this kind of show, but more so, because all the items on display are official national treasures — the exhibition title is indeed meant to be taken literally.
The TNM has held similar shows in the past, but this is the first of its kind for 14 years, bringing together such a large and impressive array of items — or so it would seem. In fact, under the Heiseikan’s capacious roof and inside its roomy display cases, many of these items simply shrink or appear lost.
This is not to be wondered at because most of the items here — delicate scrolls, prehistoric clay figurines, bridal trousseaus and esoteric ritual implements — were created long before, and without any reference to, the modern museum or even its precursor, the stately European palace. In short they are mainly items designed for the pleasure and discrete use of religious and royal elites, rather than objects to enthrall the masses.
This is best demonstrated by what is supposed to be the exhibition’s highlight: a collection of items from the famous Shosoin treasures. These treasures take their name from the repository building of Todaiji Temple in Nara, where they were formerly stored. Despite its name and fame, this temple itself is a deceptively simple piece of architecture, rather akin to a log cabin in terms of architectural sophistication. Something similar can be said about its so-called treasures, which have now been re-housed in more modern and secure storage.
The Shosoin treasures displayed here come from a large miscellany of often incredibly banal objects that were donated to the great temple of Todaiji by the widow of the Emperor Shomu (701-756) as an offering for his soul. They include an extremely faded painting, a lute, a porcelain bowl and a censer with a handle, among other things.
This is not the great, ostentatious art of a Nebuchadnezzar or Louis XIV. These are objects that were made to be handled or enjoyed in quiet intimacy by relatively small groups in secluded surroundings. Placing them here is a bit like getting a string quartet to play to a stadium audience.
The same can be said about the dogū, small, fascinating clay figurines that date from Japan’s prehistoric Jomon Period (10,000 to 200 B.C.). These little statues have a quiet charisma that would be mesmerizing in a smaller, quieter exhibition — as they were at the “Power of Dogū,” held in a different part of the museum back in 2009 — but they look somewhat lost here, packed, like most of the items, in the Heiseikan’s overused wall cases.
The wall cases are a problem, as they create long unbroken lines of viewers, who file past everything that is presented to them ever so reverently and slowly. The TNM should definitely do a lot more study of how large groups of people move, and try to create layouts that don’t create human walls in front of the exhibits but instead allow visitors to move more freely. If you home in on a particular object, you inevitably feel like a queue jumper.
But while most of the objects do badly in this environment, there are a few items that still rise above it all, such as Sesshu Toyo’s famous pair of hanging scrolls “Autumn and Winter Landscapes” (16th century), with its famous ascending line — a figurative element that rises from the landscape to lose itself mysteriously in space. Even catching a glimpse of this succeeds in taking you out of yourself — and, more importantly, the feebly jostling crowds around you.
Some of the Buddhist statues, especially a pair of golden-lacquered Buddhas from Sanzenin Temple in Ohara, Kyoto, can also hold their own with the large crowds. But the only objects that really dominate the space are a couple of large statues by the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) sculptor Kaikei, which include his “Standing Buddahari” (1203-1220), a tall, emaciated figure that soars above the slow-moving masses, like a grim reminder of mortality.
“National Treasures of Japan” at the Tokyo National Museum runs till Dec. 7; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. ( Fri. till 8 p.m., Sat., Sun and holidays till 6 p.m.); ¥1,600. Closed Mon. www.tnm.jp