The Japan galleries at the British Museum, looking back towards the entrance, and the Kudara Kannon, just barely visible here above the cases.
I visited the British Museum again, recently, for the first time in about eight years. The Japanese gallery hasn’t changed much. But, that’s fine. It’s still a really great exhibit – better, in fact, I would argue (*gasp?*) than the vast majority of rotations the Met has done in recent years.
Here’s the main argument of this post: In the midst of all this controversy over museums and Orientalism, I think the MFA and the Met could really learn something from the British Museum. Yes, yes, the British Museum is the very model of the imperial(ist) colonial museum, Hoovering up the great treasures of the world and so on and so forth. There’s certainly much to be said about that, and plenty of scholars and others have written lots of very valid criticism on that point. But, the museum’s problematic nature in that respect is, for the most part, tangential to what I would like to focus on for the purposes of this blog post, namely that unlike the Met, the MFA, and so many of the other greatest museums in the US, the British Museum is not an “art” museum, but rather a museum of the world’s cultures.
The British Museum’s Japan galleries, in particular, more so even I think than many of the other non-Western galleries, are organized in such a fashion as to tell the history of Japan, through art, rather than limiting itself to the far more narrow narrative of the history of art, in Japan. It begins with the Jomon period, and goes straight up through the present day, touching upon religion, politics, foreign relations, theatre, modernity, propaganda art & Empire, Hiroshima, pop & urban culture, rural culture, and manga. It shows Japan not as a fantasy world of aesthetics, art, and culture, but as a real place, with a complex and sometimes unpleasant political history, religious developments, and so forth, which interacted with the outside world in various ways, sometimes productively and sometimes in unequal or adversarial fashion. It shows a Japan that does not culminate in the greatness of the artistic flowering of the Edo period, but one that does that and also continues to develop over time, both before and after that, struggling with various developments, and changing continually over time.
A handpainted handscroll from the Edo period, depicting the lively activity of the Chinese quarter at Nagasaki. Truly stunning in person, in its vibrant colors and meticulous details, it simultaneously speaks to a broader historical/cultural topic.
And the exhibit does all of this while including some truly gorgeous artworks, some real masterpieces that people will come to see, and others that might really draw people in, and inspire in them a greater or deeper interest in Japan. Artworks that are beautiful, and interesting, and worthy of appreciation, even as they also relate to particular political developments. In short, the British Museum exhibit does everything the Met might do, but in a way that is so much broader – and in roughly the same amount of gallery space – covering a great many facets of Japanese history, and not just aesthetics, style, and so forth. The exhibit also includes a much wider range of pieces, thus showing a deeper, more complex vision of Japan, rather than one dominated only by ink landscapes, birds-and-flowers, and literary references. When was the last time the Met showed Japanese paintings or prints of scenes in Korea and Taiwan, or in Ryukyu or the West? Admittedly, the last several rotations of prints at the Met have focused on Yokohama-e and Meiji prints, showing Japan’s modernization in the 1850s-1890s, but, if I recall correctly, the labels are quite minimal, and little effort is made to really describe the broader political and cultural context of modernization efforts.
Looking a bit sparse from this angle, I admit, but, nevertheless, here is one of the British Museum’s many thematic sections, addressing not some artistic trend, but a broader wider cultural historical theme – modernity and urbanization – with beautiful artworks.
And, this historical approach touches upon numerous themes that could be developed out into an entire exhibit, and which I’m glad to see at least touched upon. The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco did an entire show on Korean royal ceremonies and parades, which was much more about the performance of the events, and the historical, biographical, cultural, political context, than strictly about appreciating beautiful objects for their beauty. The Asia Society in New York, some years ago, did a show of Maoist propaganda paintings which was, yes, about appreciating their aesthetic qualities, their stylistic relationship to Soviet socialist realism, and so forth, but was also very much about the politics. And yet I have a very hard time imagining the Met, in particular, ever, ever, doing a show extensively about artists’ responses to Hiroshima; or how Japanese artists engaged with and depicted the Empire (Taiwan, Korea, Manchuria); or about Tokugawa relations with Korea, Ryukyu, Holland, and the Ainu… New York’s Japan Society did a great show of Japanese Art Deco, which also showed at the Seattle Art Museum, and was also an art show, but sort of leaned in the direction of talking about flapper fashions, urban culture, cafés, jazz, and all of that in 1920s Tokyo.
As I continue to write this, I feel that maybe I’m being too harsh on the Met, in particular. After all, they have a different mission, and that mission – more closely associated to the idea of “encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts” – is a fine one. Connoisseurship, aesthetic appreciation, including teaching museum visitors that the things produced by non-Western cultures are still beautiful and worthy of appreciation, are all valiant goals.
Gallery labels for a wooden sculpture of an Edo period townsman, showing how the museum discusses the object itself, and art historical concerns, on one panel, and provides broader historical context and meaning on the other. It can be done!
But, I think a lot of the tensions and problems with our major museums, and accusations of Orientalism, as we have seen in recent months especially both with the Chinese fashion show at the Met and the kimono debacle at the MFA, is that the museums, as “art” museums, seem far too intent upon this particular approach of focusing on art appreciation, and too unwilling to turn their attentions to cultural understanding. The MFA Education program was clearly more interested in engaging visitors in appreciation or celebration of Monet than in anything directly having to do with Japan, or the complex lessons of Orientalism, and the Met curators went so far as to explicitly state that they “propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity,” a statement which, within the realms of scholarship, I think has its merits – exploring other sides of things, and so forth, as I explored in my previous blog post. But, still, this should come amidst a history and reputation for producing shows that explicitly tackle Orientalism, head-on. If one does shows about the Asian-American experience, about Chinese history, and about Orientalism, then you can then go ahead and do a show like this, exploring other sides of the issue. But if you haven’t explored the first sides yet…
Whatever else the British Museum may be, it is a museum of fostering cultural understanding, global oneness (in at least certain respects), an appreciation and celebration of the great diversity of cultures on our planet. I’m not sure you can find a hint of Orientalism within the British Museum’s exhibits, precisely because the central focus is not on aesthetic appreciation of [exotic] styles, motifs, sensibilities. In many ways, it reminds me of exhibits at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, the National Museum of Japanese History, and other history museums in Japan – that is to say, the British Museum is doing it just like the Japanese would, which is perhaps a strong indication that you’re not being Eurocentric or Orientalist about it. Despite being “art” museums, right there in the name, and in their mission statements, I think the MFA, Metropolitan, LACMA, Freer/Sackler, and so forth, would do well to consider a shift.