Feeling your way around the Tokyo National Museum


Staff Writer

Next time you have a chance to visit the Tokyo National Museum (TNM) in Tokyo’s Ueno district, before walking around that home to a vast and impressive collection of traditional Japanese paintings, sculptures and crafts, remember to make a quick stop in the room on the left of the foyer.

There, on what looks like a wooden dining table, you will find a universal-designed, tactile map that’s a pleasure to behold.

The map, created by Tokyo-based designer Nao Saito and installed at the TNM in May, is indicative of the museum’s efforts to reach out to blind and visually-impaired visitors.

While tactile maps are now common features at train stations and other public facilities in Japan, Saito’s work stands apart: It’s not one of those standard flat maps with raised dots as guides — it’s a colorful touch-and-feel creation. In other words, it’s more like a piece of art.

To portray some 20 exhibition rooms and other museum facilities on the map, Saito has put together square or rectangular panels of materials with different textures, such as wood, fabric, metal and stone. Each piece of the map symbolizes the kind of displays featured in each room.

To make the map as authentic as possible, the museum commissioned relevant craftsmen to create the panels of material that represent the exhibits as envisioned by Saito.

For example, to symbolize a room for Japanese katana swords, a fragment of real katana metal was forged by a swordsmith, while a room for Japanese urushi lacquerware is expressed as a square chunk of gleaming black lacquer, engraved and inlaid in gold with a traditional pattern of lotus flowers. The museum commissioned a lacquerware craftsman and a goldsmith for the piece.

Since all of the artworks housed in the TNM are of historical value, with many designated as national treasures, they can’t be handled by visitors — so Saito’s tactile map offers a rare opportunity for anyone to get a better understanding of the museum’s exhibits through their sense of touch. But there is also an abstract quality to it, which means a certain degree of guesswork is needed to figure out what each of the panels represents.

“I tried to use materials that look beautiful to the eye and feel gentle to the fingers,” Saito says, explaining that she intended the map to be abstract and that its purpose is not to create a miniature version of the museum, but to spark conversation between visually-impaired visitors and their friends or volunteer guides at the museum.

“It’s built on the premise that blind people normally don’t come alone; they come with sighted people,” she says. “So I hope the map will be a catalyst for their communication.”

This is Saito’s second tactile map. She created her first in 2004, while studying at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki. There, at the request of a rehabilitation center for the blind, she created a map of the six-floor building using 20 different materials, including cork, plywood, earthenware and plastic.

The TNM project was made possible through special grants the museum applied for and received from the education ministry’s Cultural Affairs Agency last year. The funding allowed the museum to implement a range of special art-education programs for schools for the blind, says Midori Suzuki, senior manager of volunteer services at the TNM.

Since April, the museum has been offering a mix of hands-on activities and workshops targeted at schools for the blind. In one of the programs, students learn about patterns unique to Japan, such as those specifically related to the seasons, and others of animals. This is taught through kaiawase, an ancient Japanese game, rather like Concentration or Pairs, in which players try to match the image painted on the concave side of a shell with that on another shell.

The museum has also trained 17 of some 160 volunteers to better assist visitors from such schools, which can arrange trips to the museum in advance.

“The museum building itself is a designated Important Cultural Property,” Suzuki says, adding that visitors on the schools program also touch and feel the museum’s stair banisters, the sides of which are decorated with elaborate Arabesque patterns. “In addition to explaining the exhibits, we try to let them soak up the special atmosphere of the museum,” she says.

The museum, which was built in 1937 and has high ceilings and superior-quality hardwood floors, does have a special, serene air to it. But is it really possible for blind people to understand or enjoy what’s on display without seeing any of the exhibits?

Suzuki says blind students normally choose to visit a few things only, and that they spend a lot of time listening to detailed descriptions from trained volunteers, who explain the shapes, colors and historical background of what is on display.

“To be honest, at first I wasn’t sure whether they would find it fun to come here,” Suzuki concedes. “But (visitors have told us that) the whole experience — a trip with their friends, away from their homes and schools; the noises and the atmosphere of the museum — can all be exciting as well. I hope they take home the feeling that, with the help of volunteer guides, they enjoyed touring the museum.”

Kozue Handa, a member of the museum’s committee on infrastructure improvement who was involved in the programs for blind students, says the tactile art at the TNM is unique, and that students from schools for the blind who have used it told her it’s “like a piece of painting.”

The TNM’s other initiatives also set an example for the nation’s other museums, many of which still don’t accommodate the needs of disabled visitors, says Handa, who also researches art education for the blind at the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture.

Handa, who is blind herself, adds, however, that the museum could and should do more. Aside from the tactile art, which can be viewed and touched by anyone, the museum has no programs targeted at adult blind people, whose numbers far exceedo the 4,000 students attending schools for the blind across Japan.

“The TNM is Japan’s top museum, so whatever it does has a big impact on others,” Handa says. “It’s all the more important, therefore, that it takes the next step forward.”