As a kid, I loved the Metropolitan Museum’s Arms & Armor section, as I am sure a great many other kids did then, and do today. But I never really appreciated until quite recently just how special, how unusual, it is for a major museum to have such a large and prominent permanent exhibit of arms & armor. In the case of the Met, it’s all thanks to a fellow by the name of Bashford Dean, who founded the museum’s Department of Arms & Armor in 1912. In honor of this 100 year anniversary, the Met has organized an exhibit about Dean and the founding of the department of Arms & Armor, which I got to see last summer. It’s a great little exhibit, and it will be up through Fall 2014.
Some highlights for me included an actual catapult stone from the Crusades, and, of course, the various Japan connections. Dean traveled to Japan around 1900, and lent his collection of over 125 objects of Japanese arms & armor to the Metropolitan in 1903. The catalog he wrote for that 1903 exhibition was the most extensive treatment yet at that time, in English, on the subject of Japanese arms & armor, and after he donated much of his collection to the Met, it became by far the largest collection of such objects anywhere outside Japan. I’d be curious whether it retains that title today. But Dean went further – in 1905, he arranged an exchange with the Tokyo National Museum, giving Tokyo a number of Egyptian objects in exchange for a number of pieces of arms & armor from Japan’s kofun, or “tomb mound” period (c. 250-550 CE).1 Cool as it is to get to see all these swords, helmets, and suits of armor from the Edo period (1600-1868, as I imagine the majority of the collection must surely be) which Dean brought back, kofun period artifacts are far more rare, and so to have these in the collection from such an early date is really something.
Allison Meier has written a great review of the exhibit, loaded with lots of great pictures.
Dean started collecting armor as a child, but his first academic love was fishes. At Columbia University he studied both paleontology and zoology, especially intrigued by those ancient fishes with flesh that seemed born for battle. He soon became a professor at the university and started to travel, and while that would be achievement enough he branched out into a full obsession with Japan, especially its military history. Soon he had the most impressive Japanese armor collection outside of Asia, and this transitioned into an extensive delve into the whole history of military protection that entailed the building of a whole display hall at his home of Wave Hill. Eventually in 1912 he became the first curator of arms and armor at the Metropolitan Museum, in addition to already being a curator of fishes at the American Museum of Natural History. He’s still the only person to have held curatorial positions at both places simultaneously.
Check out the rest of Meier’s review over at Hyperallergic.
Above: A Dutch or Flemish pikeman’s helmet, or “pot,” adapted in Japan in the 17th century. Another rare and quite special object from Dean’s collection – certainly the only example I recall ever seeing of a European helmet adapted by the Japanese. The gallery label says these modifications took place in the mid-to-late 17th century, after all large-scale fighting had ended. But, if it were just slightly earlier, the 1570s to 1630s were the high point of the use of arquebuses in battle in Japan, and the adoption of European armor to help defend against European weapons certainly makes a degree of sense.
Dean’s concurrent specialties in fish and arms may seem bizarre, and indeed it is, but, it’s hardly unique. In fact, it reminds me of Edward Sylvester Morse, Dean’s rough contemporary, who originally traveled to Japan to study brachiopods, shellfish and such, and ended up playing a major role in introducing Japanese ceramics to the West (as Dean did for armor), and in pioneering the beginnings of archaeological research in Japan.
As someone interested in the history of museums and of collecting, in the history of Japanese Studies, and in the sometimes quite exciting provenance of individual objects or collections, this exhibit on Bashford Dean was really quite a treat. As Meier points out in her review, the Met’s Arms & Armor permanent displays, and this long-running but temporary exhibition are all the more interesting, and important, in light of the fact that the Higgins Armory Museum, located in Worcester, Mass., closed down at the end of 2013 after 83 years of being the only museum in the entire United States devoted exclusively to arms and armor. Though I lived in Boston for several years, I never made it out to the Higgins; and I’m sad to learn that now I never will. Still, we have the Metropolitan, and the smaller but still excellent permanent exhibits of Japanese arms & armor at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Bashford Dean and the Creation of the Arms and Armor Department is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd St) through Fall 2014.
1) When visiting the Tokyo National Museum last summer, I got to see some mummies which were the very first Egyptian objects acquired by the TNM, back in 1904. It would have been a wonderful connection if these were the same objects given the TNM by Dean & the Met in exchange for the kofun era objects, but, alas, it is not the case.
All photos in this post are my own.