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Museums Attract Visitors with Unique Artifacts (September 22, 2003)

fusuma paintings
"Flowers and Birds in the Four Seasons" by Kano Eitoku (Courtesy of Jukoin)
Japan has three national museums, one each in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nara, and this year these establishments are competing to see which can put on the most impressive temple-themed exhibition. The museums have been holding a series of major exhibitions on the treasures stored in nationally famous temples like Nishi Hongwanji, Koyasan, Kenchoji, and Daitokuji. These exhibitions have offered the public chances to view precious artifacts never previously displayed.

Year-Long Temple Tribute in Tokyo
Tokyo National Museum in Ueno is approaching the task of showcasing temple artifacts with particular enthusiasm. It held an exhibition on the Nichiren sect of Buddhism in January and February, an exhibition on Nishi Hongwanji temple from late March to early May, then an exhibition titled "Kamakura: The Art of Zen Buddhism" in June and July. The museum will stage an exhibition on "Fusuma Paintings of Jukoin" from October 31 to December 14 and will continue with its series of temple-related events until 2007, including exhibitions on such temples as Nanzenji and Toshodaiji. The Kyoto National Museum, meanwhile, held an exhibition on "Treasures of a Sacred Mountain: Kukai and Mount Koya, Celebrating 1,200 Years of Esoteric Buddhism in Japan" in April and May, and the Nara National Museum held an exhibition titled "Women and Buddhism" that focused on the role of women in Buddhism.

fusuma paintings
"The Four Accomplishments" by Kano Eitoku (Courtesy of Jukoin)

All in all, the national museums are experiencing something of a temple boom. One of the reasons the museums have turned their attention to temples is that Japanese art, especially that from before the Edo period, is deeply entwined with Buddhism, and many works of art considered national treasures or important examples of Japan's cultural heritage are stored in temples, inaccessible to ordinary people. By putting such hidden treasures on public display, the museums are able to attract large numbers of visitors.

Most of the temple exhibitions came about following an approach by a particular Buddhist sect to one of the museums suggesting that artifacts held by the sect be displayed to mark its major ceremonies. Keen to attract more visitors, the museums enthusiastically accepted these proposals.

Events at which major temples put their hidden Buddha icons on public display on a specific day are called go-kaicho and have been popular since the Edo period (1603-1868). The temple exhibitions now taking place are the modern-day equivalents of go-kaicho and have likewise attracted many visitors. The Tokyo National Museum aimed to draw 80,000 people to its exhibition on Nichiren and 100,000 to the one on Nishi Hongwanji, but in fact both exhibitions exceeded expectations by attracting 150,000 to 160,000 people. It seems that the practice of go-kaicho still has a strong hold on the general public.

The abbot's quarters at Jukoin (Courtesy of Jukoin)

Museums Learning to Cope with Change of Status
Why have the national museums been so keen to host the exhibitions suggested to them by temples? Some observers have pointed to the fact that since 2001 all national museums and art galleries have been turned into independent administrative institutions. This means that instead of receiving money from the government and managing their operations on a makeshift basis their revenues depend on how many people show up. They must, therefore, put on exhibitions that draw visitors.

Of course, the museums do not have to limit the scope of their exhibitions to temples. The Kyoto National Museum, for example, has held an exhibition titled "The Art of Star Wars" that focused on the popular American science-fiction movie series. This major exhibition was originally held in Finland, where it attracted half a million visitors in three months. Mindful of the number of Star Wars fans in Japan and of the potential influx of visitors, the museum took the bold step of bringing the exhibition to Japan, despite opposition from some traditionalists. The museum reasoned that if the Star Wars event could attract people who would not usually frequent museums, those same people might well come back for other exhibitions in the future.

National Museums Have Proven Track Records
The three national museums boast some of the finest collections of Japanese art through the ages anywhere in the world and are among the most popular sightseeing stops for foreign visitors to Japan. At the same time, they have a proven record of staging eye-catching special exhibitions. One particularly famous event was the "Mona Lisa Exhibition" held at the Tokyo National Museum in 1974, which attracted over 1.5 million visitors. This is officially the second most popular exhibition ever in Japan, but considering that the most popular - the art exhibition held at the venue of the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka - lasted fully six months, the Mona Lisa exhibition is effectively the record holder. Nine years earlier, meanwhile, in 1965, an exhibition on Tutankhamen at the Tokyo museum drew 1.3 million people. Although the national museums have not held any exhibitions as eye-catching as these in recent years, they have been skillfully blending programs featuring works stored in their own collection and works loaned from elsewhere.

While not a national museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo has had a major impact since opening in 1995. To coincide with the summer holidays, the museum is holding an exhibition on the world of animation, specifically the famed Studio Ghibli, from June 14 to September 7, and the event has already attracted 150,000 people (entry is by reservation at Lawson convenience stores only). Art galleries and museums are sure to continue seeking innovative ways to attract visitors.

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Related Web Sites
Nishi Hongwanji
Tokyo National Museum
"Kamakura" in Japan Atlas
Kyoto National Museum
Nara National Museum
Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo
Studio Ghibli (Japanese only)

Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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