LONDON – British museums and galleries are looking for ways to revitalize their collections of Japanese artifacts and increase the public’s interest in them.
Britain has one of the largest and most diverse collections of Japanese items outside Japan. There are an estimated half a million objects in 150 galleries across the country. Many of those items were brought to Britain during the 19th century when Japanese articles were fashionable among the upper classes.
But the Japan Foundation in London feels that some of the items are not being properly displayed or valued, and in some cases neglected.
To address this problem, the foundation recently held a meeting of curators to come up with ways to improve the collections.
The general consensus of the group was that many museums lacked the time, space and money to adequately maintain and expand their Japanese displays. There are few specialist curators and there are concerns that when they retire, museums will not be able to replace them.
There was also a feeling that in order to raise the profile of Japan and attract a more diverse audience, objects needed to be exhibited in more imaginative ways.
A number of people who attended the meeting said it was becoming harder to promote Japan as much of the emphasis in museums is now on India and China.
Greg Irvine, from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, said the meeting came out of concerns some Japanese objects were being displayed in a haphazard way and were mixed together with Chinese and Korean items.
“Apart from at the big national and regional museums, there are not really any experts to look after the Japanese collections at the smaller museums,” he said. “There are some enthusiastic amateurs but often their hands are tied” because they have other commitments, he said.
Curators are now considering ways to improve conditions at the galleries.
Several Japanese experts have formed a group, Japanese Art Collections in the U.K. (JACUK). It has set up a Web site, linked to the Japanese Embassy, with details of the collection.
JACUK hopes to get more funds to expand the site and add more images to help to raise the collection’s profile.
“It’s difficult to keep Japan’s profile high when government incentives do not have it as a major priority,” Irvine said.
Many of the people at the meeting agreed that more needed to be done to attract wider audiences.
Some felt that there was too much emphasis on items traditionally associated with Japan, such as kimonos and samurai armor.
They felt the museums needed to expand and showcase contemporary Japan as well as give a new twist to the older objects. Suggestions were that this might be done by linking items to modern-day life as well as giving them historical context to make them more relevant.
Irvine said it is easy to “pigeon-hole” exhibitions, focusing only on samurai, geisha and cherry blossoms, but other aspects of Japanese life should be explored, such as “anime” animation and “manga” comics.
Such suggestions may be easy for the large British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum in London to implement, but it is much harder for the smaller collections outside the capital to make major changes.
Representatives from the smaller museums said it was important for them to encourage school visits, and they wanted more support to help develop interesting programs on Japanese items for children.
They also wanted more help from outside bodies to help organize and identify the objects in their collections.
Several of the small museums also suggested a national or regional tour of important Japanese artifacts to generate more interest in their own collections.
No decisions were reached, but everyone involved hoped the meeting would provide a much-needed boost to make improvements to the collections.
While everyone recognized there were challenges, they acknowledged that a lot of support already was being offered by the Japan Foundation and the Japanese Embassy in London.
Junko Takekawa, from the Japan Foundation, said her organization was planning a seminar for November to discuss how to improve the presentation of collections.
This involves “shining a new light” on the artifacts and looking at how they can also relate to contemporary Japan, Takekawa said.
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