Finishing one’s schoolwork for the quarter is a wonderful feeling. In about a week from now, I’ll be in Yokohama again, where this blog started, attending an intensive language program. But for now, for a few sweet days, I’m free to relax and deal with some other things – like updating this blog!
Fusuma paintings at Ninna-ji, in Kyoto.
I began back in March posting about the panels I attended at the annual Association for Asian Studies conference this year… apologies for the hiatus, but I knew I’d back to it eventually. And here we are. Following the panel on Japanese castles, I attended a lively roundtable discussion about the replacement of artworks in Kyoto temples with digital reproductions, while the originals are being sent to museums, to be kept and conserved.
I remain unclear on what exactly the relationship is between the government and the temples, as to whether or not the government has the power to take objects out of temples even if the temples are opposed to it; I am also unclear as to what the temples’ positions are on the matter. Of course we can easily imagine temples wishing to keep these objects which have, in many cases, belonged to the temple for hundreds of years. But, to be honest, I can also imagine at least some temples being eager to see the objects better taken care of in governmentally-funded museums equipped with modern conservation equipment (e.g. climate controlled storage spaces); it’s certainly not uncommon for private collectors here in the West to donate, sell, or long-term lend objects to museums, saying that they themselves could not take care of the objects properly.
Fusuma and wall paintings in the Rinshun-kaku at the Sankeien in Yokohama.
I can see people being quite passionate that these objects, owned by the temples, belong to the temples, and shouldn’t be taken away; I can also imagine others being equally passionate that all steps should be taken to protect and conserve these precious objects. Both of these attitudes are, I think, quite valid and justified. But, of course, as with so many things, I think it’s more complicated than that. I think it depends on the type of object, its relationship to the temple, the conditions in which it’s being kept, and the issue of access. In the case of objects integral to the physical design/appearance/decoration of the temple, such as the fusuma (sliding door) paintings (also known as shôhekiga, “screen and wall paintings”) at so many temples, personally, I think they should stay. To take this logic to its slightly absurd extremes, if we’re going to remove wall paintings to conserve them, how is that so different from removing the walls and posts themselves for conservation, and replacing those – indeed replacing the entire building – with modern reproductions?
Similarly, I feel that objects (whether they be scrolls, or something else kept stored away) with a particularly long or strong historical connection to the temple should likewise be kept, and not taken away sent away to museums. While I certainly appreciate and don’t deny the conservation instinct, as a historian, there’s also the strong feeling of allowing an object, and a temple, to continue its history. I’d rather see books say “the painting was painted for the temple in [insert year] and has been there ever since,” or “the object was donated to the temple by [insert famous name here] and has been there ever since,” rather than “the temple held the object for hundreds of years, until in 2009 it was removed to a museum for conservation, and replaced with this modern reproduction.”
A folding screen (byôbu) painting in a Kyoto private collection, on display only for the Gion Festival.
That said, the issue of access was a prominent one in the roundtable discussion, and I think it’s a very important one, not only for scholars, but for the general public as well. Where is the average member of the public, the tourist, or the scholar, going to be more easily, more frequently, more able to see the object? How often does the temple show the work? How often would a museum show the work? I don’t know how large the average temple’s collection is, or how often objects are rotated, but taking a stab in the dark, I imagine it possible that objects of any significance for the temple will be shown relatively often, whereas most museums only show 1-10% of their collection at any given time, and given the much wider range of types of objects (and themes, periods, or styles) to be shown, the likelihood of any given object being shown is pretty slim. But, in terms of scholars or others requesting permission to access works not on display, I gather that generally museums are much easier to get into than temples. So, returning to my point about historical connections or associations, I think that perhaps it’s okay if objects without such a strong historical connection do go to museums. Admittedly, the issue at hand in digital reproduction in Kyoto pertains more exclusively to fusuma, wall, and byôbu (folding screen) paintings, but, for the sake of argument, the famous Itsukushima Shrine at Miyajima, for example, has a painting of Okakura Kakuzô as Qu Yuan, painted by Yokoyama Taikan, which I would love to see someday. The object itself is only about 100 years old, and neither Okakura nor Taikan had any dramatically special connection to the shrine; how exactly it got to be there, I don’t know. But I do imagine that the shrine, which consists almost entirely of verandas open to the sea air and possesses no formal gallery space, puts the painting on display extremely infrequently, if ever. Now, I’m not challenging the shrine’s right to own the painting – not by any means – of course they have a right to own it, just as much as anyone has a right to own anything that they own. But, if hypothetically the painting were to come into the possession of a museum instead, not only might it be conserved better (I have no idea what the conservation conditions are at the shrine; they might be quite good), but it would probably be shown more often, and, would probably be more accessible to scholars. I don’t know about Japanese museums, but, so long as one has a decent reason, it’s quite easy, in truth, for scholars to get into the Metropolitan, or the Smithsonian, to look at objects in their collections – I very much doubt the same thing can be said for most temples and shrines, if for no other reason than because they don’t have the same kind of bureaucratic infrastructure in place to allow for it (not to mention the very different religious and cultural attitudes between temples/shrines and museums as to the purpose of access, the purpose of protection, etc.).
I’ve drifted off topic here a bit… but in my next post, I’ll come back to the Kyoto case more specifically, and try to summarize what was actually discussed in the roundtable, possibly with a relative minimum of my own extemporizing.