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Urashima Monogatari Scroll (detail), L. Tom Perry Special Collections, BYU. An amazingly rich, gorgeously painted object.

I’ve just come back from a workshop at Brigham Young University (in Provo, UT), where they invited grad students and professors to come and check out their library’s stunning collection of Japanese objects.

The objects themselves are quite incredible. They have some 400 items in the collection, which is roughly 390-something more than we have here at UCSB* … While some experts in such things may be able to speak to the rarity and exceptional quality of the items in the BYU collection, and how they compare to those at Harvard, Yale, etc., what was of much more interest to me was simply the objects themselves, the topics they covered, and their incredible beauty. Sure, it’s great to have a high-quality (tokusei-bon 特製本) copy of a Kôetsu-bon of the Noh play Tatsuta – an extremely fine and presumably quite rare example of one of the earliest forms of Japanese movable type printing, from the very beginning of the 17th century – but, for me, it was the lengthy, highly detailed, vividly colored scroll paintings of mining on Sado Island, as well as even more gorgeously painted scrolls of foreign peoples & ships, that struck my eye. How many universities have such wonderful primary resources for studying early modern Japanese mining? Or early modern Japanese attitudes / perceptions / conceptions of foreigners?

EDIT:These are not only aesthetically, stylistically, technically, masterful works, many of them in amazingly good condition, but they are simultaneously excellent historical works. They tell us something not only about the artist, or the cultural milieu, the way the endless rotations of landscapes & birds-and-flowers at so many of our art museums do; these are stunningly beautiful while also serving as a window into the history itself – the history of mining, of ships, of foreign relations. Boy, I so want to secure a museum job some day so I can put together shows of works like these.

Sado Kinzan (Sado Gold Mine) Scroll, detail.

Two things I found especially wonderful and incredible about this collection, outside of the objects themselves. One, Prof. Jack Stoneman and others are using the collection as an opportunity to teach BA and MA students, in a very direct and hands-on manner, how to handle such objects, how to examine them closely and use them as research materials, and how to perform research about them, i.e. gaining first-hand experience at bibliographic research, tracking down provenance, comparing extant examples to determine how rare or how high-quality your copy is…. all skills that are essential for anyone seeking to go into museum, library, or archive work (or, nearly so, I suppose, depending on the position and the institution), and valuable too for a wide variety of other career paths. I’ve interned at several museums, and have an MA in Art History, and I don’t think I have quite the experience, the practice, that these students are gaining. Plus, the professors at BYU are using these primary sources to teach students hentaigana and kuzushiji.

Second, Prof. Stoneman told us something about the history of the collection, and it’s pretty incredible. Most of this collection comes from a man named Harry F. Bruning, who collected a wide variety of things, and sold much of it to a David Magee, who then sold it to the university. As far as we know, Bruning never went to Japan – didn’t even speak Japanese – and so, with my apologies for saying so, I’m not sure that Bruning himself is quite as fascinating a figure as, say, Bigelow, Morse, or Okakura, who traveled and dressed in traditional clothing and more actively engaged with the artistic & cultural worlds of the introduction of Japanese art into the US, and of the introduction of Westerners into Japan…. What’s really fascinating about the Bruning story is the way that Stoneman began to track down information about the collection. While looking through reference books from BYU’s library, such as a 1931 hard copy print catalog of the Art Institute of Chicago’s holdings, he noticed prices and checkmarks and the like penciled into the margins. And he noticed the same marks, in the same handwriting, in a few other books from the BYU library. And then he found, by some wonderful expert searching, a ledger or account book, also in the BYU Special Collections, but not well-cataloged or labeled (simply because no one had really looked at it closely enough before), which it turns out was Bruning’s own ledger, a daily diary of things he bought, sold, or inquired about!! But, this diary doesn’t happen to have any Japanese materials listed in it, and further, while there is reason to believe Bruning compiled a highly organized and detailed list of his own collection before handing it over to Magee, that book, if it still exists, is yet to be found. Is it also in the BYU library somewhere? Is it in the possession, somewhere, of Bruning’s relatives? … In short, it turns out it’s not just the Japanese materials themselves (and a huge wealth of other materials, incl. Western sheet music) which were The Bruning Collection, but actually it would seem a whole ton of reference books, booksellers’ catalogs, etc., which have now become scattered across the library collections, and so it’s sort of a treasure hunt to find Bruning’s handwritten notes in books throughout the library, and to piece this back together.

Ryûkyûjin dôro gakki zu (Ryukyuans Street Music Instruments Scroll)(detail). A handpainted copy of the scrolls I saw at the University of Hawaiʻi Library (Sakamaki-Hawley Collection).

I find the whole thing quite encouraging, because it means that just maybe, depending on the institution and the situation there, I just might be able to find myself – despite not having a PhD in Art History, despite not being Curator or Librarian or Archivist – nevertheless getting to work very closely with a collection, researching it myself and/or working with students to use the materials to teach them, and to help them acquire research skills as well.

All photos my own. All objects, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

*As far as I am aware, within the Art Library’s Special Collections, not counting “Main” Special Collections, or what may be owned by the Art, Design, and Architecture (AD&A) Museum on campus.

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