National | VIEW FROM OSAKA

For Kyoto, international meeting of museum directors and creators is an opportunity to learn

by Eric Johnston

STAFF WRITER

From Sept. 1 to 7, Kyoto will host thousands of museum directors, curators and art historians from Japan and around the world for the general assembly meeting of the Paris-based International Council of Museums (ICOM).

Over the week, a range of culture, art, archaeology and museum-related workshops, seminars and special events will take place. Among other topics, participants will discuss how museums can handle historical themes such as decolonization, and there will be a session on Sept. 2 on how the voices of Imperial Japan’s former colonial territories are presented at museums.

In addition, the American branch of ICOM will tackle a more current U.S. political, social, and cultural debate in a session entitled “A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture during the age of Bush, Obama, and Trump.”

Add to these dozens of workshops and sessions designed to train museum employees, deal with archaeological preservation and discuss the role of museums in a world where it’s easier than ever to take a virtual tour of one, and you have a conference that should be fascinating and informative.

For Kyoto, where much of Japan’s ancient art works and artifacts are located, the ICOM conference is also being used by the government as yet another opportunity to promote “beautiful” Japan to the international community.

One wonders at this point, does anybody in Japanese officialdom or certain media have an interest in speaking to an international audience about serious issues related to Japanese art and culture in a way that doesn’t come off as a self-satisfied tourism campaign?

What issues? Protecting museums and ancient artifacts in museum collections from natural disasters, for starters. All the more critical in a country with frequent earthquakes and typhoons.

Thankfully, the ICOM meeting will discuss museums in times of disaster. But better coordination between museum officials and governments in Japan, including detailed plans for recovering museum artifacts, storing and maintaining them, should be a top priority for local and national government policy coordination.

The placement of strict daily or hourly limits on the number of visitors allowed into museums, especially if ancient historical artifacts are on open display, could possibly benefit preservation efforts. But that might make for a more difficult discussion, especially in Japan.

Over-tourism, or “tourism pollution” has become a huge problem in the country, especially at Kyoto’s temples and shrines where the risk of damage is obviously higher than the more controlled environment of a museum. But one of the goals of the Kyoto ICOM meeting is to discuss different ways that museum visitors can have a more enjoyable, and educational, experience. Various modern marketing ideas are sure to be presented and some sessions will discuss the role of interactive technologies in helping visitors understand and appreciate the past.

All well and good. But one hopes that if there are participants whose museums place daily or hourly limits on the number of visitors allowed, that they will offer their thoughts.

In Kyoto, the idea of limiting the number of visitors to the more popular tourist sites has been discussed for years. For museums, the common complaint is they close too early and there have been calls to encourage at least public museums to remain open until late in the evening.

Any limits to the number of visitors might make Kyoto officials worry about a possible loss in tourism revenue. But the ICOM meeting will hopefully provide them with lessons to adopt, not merely another chance to brag to the world about their culture and history.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.