Art

Japan's TOP museum sees the big picture

by Alice Gordenker

Special To The Japan Times

After being closed for two years for major renovations, Tokyo’s best-known photography museum in Tokyo’s fashionable Ebisu neighborhood reopened on Sept. 3, just in time to celebrate its 20-year anniversary. The venerable facility now boasts a new look, improved exhibition spaces and a new name in English: the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, or TOP Museum for short.

When it opened in 1995, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (as it was previously known in English) was the first public institution in Japan devoted entirely to photographic art. Although the English name has been changed to better reflect the museum’s mission to handle all forms of photographic media, its Japanese title remains the same: Tokyo-to Shashin Bijutsukan.

The museum’s original mandate was to not only collect, preserve and display photographs, but also to conduct research, encourage artists and give the public more opportunities to enjoy photographs and moving images. At the time, it was almost unheard of for an art museum in Japan to exhibit photographs, so the museum was blazing a trail.

In its first two decades, the museum did the expected: showcasing the work of well-known Japanese photographers including Eikoh Hosoe, Ikko Narahara, Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki. But it also consciously supported recognized yet still developing artists by providing exposure at critical points in their careers. Yuki Onadera and Tomoko Yoneda are notable examples who received a boost through solo exhibitions there. Curators also took a broad view of photography as art, promoting genres that tended to be overlooked, including fashion, travel and alpine photography. A handful of exhibitions tackled thorny social issues, including AIDS and gender.

In historical research, the museum undertook an ambitious 10-year project to survey, identify and exhibit early Japanese photographs, contacting museums, and government and other archives across the country to inquire about their holdings of old images. The project brought important photographs into public view and advanced the understanding of how this imported technology was adopted and adapted in Japan. This research will culminate in an anthology exhibition next March.

Yet, while all this work was progressing, time took its toll on the physical plant. In addition, lighting, exhibition and projection equipment, and storage facilities grew outdated as technology advanced. So in September 2014, the museum’s doors were closed. The staff and collection were moved out and construction crews moved in. Two years later, for its first post-renovation exhibition, the museum brought in high-profile Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto (see below review), who has based himself in New York since the 1970s and is famous for using large-format cameras and long exposures to take huge yet minutely detailed photographs.

The most noticeable changes to the museum are in the lobby and exhibition spaces, which now look brighter and more open. The carpeting in the second and third floor galleries has been replaced with wood flooring, and all galleries fitted with LED lighting and automated environmental-control systems, which matters because photographs and film are easily damaged by light and changes in temperature and humidity. Exhibition conditions in the museum now exceed international standards and, importantly, also meet Japanese government rules for the exhibition of Important Cultural Properties. This will allow the museum to display certain historical photographs that previously couldn’t be shown.

The library on the fourth floor, which has an extensive collection of photography books and just about every resource you could hope to find, is again open to the public. Getting there will be easier now with the addition of a second elevator, which addresses the frequent complaints about long waits for the building’s previous single elevator.

In other changes, the museum shop was moved up to the second floor, freeing up additional area for the first-floor cafe, operated by Maison Ichi, a trendy bakery-cafe in Daikanyama that serves up tasty sandwiches and desserts. Take- out is available, a service that will no doubt be appreciated by workers in nearby office towers, and a bit of outdoor table space was added.

In the year ahead, Tokyo Photographic Art Museum (TOP) will hold various special programs, including workshops, film showings and international symposiums, in celebration of its 20th anniversary. For details, visit topmuseum.jp/e/contents/index.html.