Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 15, 2018
Noriko Aso Public Properties: Museums in Imperial Japan Asia-Pacific: Culture, Politics, and Society. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2013. 320 pp.; 33 ills. Paper $27.95 (9780822354291)

The obvious characteristics that distinguished Japan’s modern museums from older indigenous practices are permanent space, comprehensive collections, and a viewing public. While the pivotal research on the state-centric practice of “show and tell” has been conducted by scholars such as Satō Dōshin, Christine Guth, and Alice Tseng, Noriko Aso focuses on the discursive formation of museum-going publics within broader developments of exhibiting institutions. Tellingly, she opens the book with an illustration of museum visitors at the Tokyo Imperial Household Museum in 1940. Rather than showing a museum building or arrays of artifacts on display, this sketch vividly illustrates Aso’s argument: what makes a museum is principally an audience, because “without a viewing public, a museum is simply a collection, not a cultural institution” (4). Aso investigates the modern museum as a key site for imagining and cultivating a viewing public and discusses how museums’ public was defined, conditioned, and negotiated by different agents, institutions, and individuals.

The first chapter meticulously details how Japan embarked on an age of modern museum culture. While acknowledging the native precedents, such as misemono (literally, “showing things”), kaichō (unveiling sacred icons), and bussankai (displaying commercial products), that prepared the way for the modern exhibition experience, Aso argues that what characterized the state museums was institutional continuity—fixed-site architecture and public access. Unlike the Edo-period displays aimed at carnivalesque and sensational effects, the museum became a specific embodiment of order, rationality, and modernity. For instance, the Fifth National Exposition’s “Various Regulations Related to Viewing” (1903; 46–47) projected an image of an orderly modern audience by clearly drawing the boundaries of a visitor’s behavior, manners, and ways of seeing and being seen. In this way, the national museum became a key agent for the cultural production of a viewing public and its modern identity. 

The second chapter probes the imperialization of the government museum, shifting its focus from the early Enlightenment ideals and economic promotion. The museum, renamed as the Tokyo Imperial Household Museum, materialized the imperial ownership of an elite-heritage collection and promoted it as a national patrimony. As the imperial collection tended to be a private affair, a category of “imperial properties” was ambiguous about drawing a line between private and public. Yet by enabling public access to the imperial properties, the museum claimed a public identity.

In chapter 3, Aso examines the particularities of building the Japanese colonial museums in Taiwan and Korea for a new viewing public. The main objective of the Government-General Museum of Taiwan was commercial: to survey and extract rich natural resources. Aimed at Taiwan’s multiethnic population (largely ethnic Chinese and aboriginal groups), the colonial museum downplayed the long historical relationship with the mainland and highlighted a distinct regional identity of Taiwan-ness, separate from China and connected to Japan’s total empire. In the case of colonial Korea, Aso elucidates the trajectory of three Japanese government–led museums by highlighting their different functions in accordance with the rapidly changing Japanese colonial policies. It is no coincidence that all three, the Yi Royal Family Museum, the Government-General Museum, and the Yi Royal Fine Arts Museum, were built on the grounds of former royal palaces. The convergence of Japanese colonial politics in these colonial museums can be found in the “museumification” of not only colonial properties but also this specific site—the political center of the Yi monarchy.

As Aso notes, this was also the case for the Imperial Museum, where the “museumification” of Tokyo’s Ueno district signified the transition of power from the Tokugawa shogunate to the Meiji government both metaphorically and practically. In colonial Korea, by opening up the royal palaces of the fallen Joseon dynasty, the Japanese colonial government reconfigured this once-sacred site as both a public entertainment and a powerful promotion of Japanese rule. The official Japanese narrative presented the arts of a pre-colonial Korean past, in particular of the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), as the pinnacle of Korean artistic production, in contrast to the “backward” and “stagnant” arts of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910).

As a turn away from the colonial government-run museums, the renowned Japanese folk-craft theorist and promoter of Korean art Yanagi Muneyoshi (1889–1961) conceived and established the Korean Folk Art Museum (1924) in the same palace site—the first private museum in Korea and a precursor to the Japan Folk Crafts Museum (the Mingeikan), which opened in Tokyo in 1936. The innovation of the Korean Folk Art Museum was to present a new type of Korean artifact: comparatively quotidian Joseon ceramics. As Aso makes the case in the next chapter, it is worth discussing how Yanagi’s private museum in Korea manifested a growing challenge to the central authority (although it operated according to the same colonial logic of assigning authoritative power to Japanese discovery) and an expansion of the viewing public in the metropole and the colony. In the scheme of Japan’s total empire, the colonial museums served not only colonial subjects but also Japanese and Western travelers as mutually shared and highly unequal space. To make this point, the impact of these colonial museums on an imperial public in the metropole can be taken into account here.

Chapter 4 discusses three private museum projects aimed at challenging the state museums’ cultural authority and reforming the centrality of the imperial and national canons. The industrialist leader and philanthropist Ōhara Magosaburō (1880–1943) conceived the Ōhara Museum of Art to promote his hometown, Kurashiki, and he relocated works of importance, including original paintings by major Western artists, there from the capital, Tokyo. The leading businessman Shibusawa Keizō (1896–1963) proposed the idea of a  folk museum to represent recent economic history from the perspective of commoners and to recognize the importance of the “folk” as the main organ of the nation. In the same vein, Yanagi Muneyoshi created a permanent space for mingei (folk crafts), rarely regarded as collectible and presentable in the museum setting prior to his discovery. As Aso notes, Shibusawa’s Folk Museum of Economic History did not materialize, and neither the Ōhara Museum nor the Mingeikan won official or popular support. One can argue, however, that because these private museums were conceived in opposition to the government museums, their success or failure should not be measured by official recognition. While the fortunes of these private museum projects relied on innovations distinct from the hegemonic state agendas, the result ironically proved that they did not offer enough novel spectacle or entertainment to a demanding public. This underscores the fact that museum construction is not about engineering a final product according to a prescribed vision but encompasses a process of trial and error on the basis of public reception.

Chapter 5 investigates the emergence of Japan’s department stores in relation to their close ties with exhibition-based museum culture. Here, Aso provides a colorful profile of the consuming public—social status, gender, and age group—along with an analysis of the department stores’ advertising campaigns, customer surveys, and catalogues. Interestingly, what makes Japanese department stores different from their Western counterparts is their customer base—families with children rather than female customers only. Their target audience overlapped with that of the museums. Just as the museums enunciated an idea of modern leisure, called “art taste” (bijutsu shumi), the department stores became taste-setters for the new consumer culture and the modern lifestyle. Given Aso’s initial question about what brought people to spend their leisure time in the museums, her investigation of how both museums and department stores created and cultivated a certain “taste” as the expression of a new, modern lifestyle is significant. While both were public spheres, the fundamental difference between museums and department stores had to do with the imposition of an entry fee at the former and free entry at the latter. Although “window shopping” is a popular notion, consumers could purchase the items on display in a department store but were granted only viewing privileges in a museum.

Aso’s book is a welcome effort to study the formation of modern museums as conditioned by the advent of a viewing public. While its five chapters together provide a comprehensive history of Japan’s modern museums, each chapter takes up a different component of modernization, empire-building, colonialism, and mass culture. These diverse topics make Public Properties: Museums in Imperial Japan compelling reading for a wide range of readers. As Aso adds to our knowledge of this understudied aspect of Japan’s museum history, so does her book caution us about the dilemma of writing about a museum-going public as the primary focus. If viewers’ profiles and museum experiences are assessed only by official narratives, there is a risk that the whole story of public reception will be lost. Aso’s masterful treatment of varied sources, including not only government reports and regulations but also newspapers, novels, and survey results, reveals both the official and the public “minds” of modern museum culture. As a result, this book significantly expands the field of museum studies and raises many questions for future scholarship.

Seung Yeon Sang
Henderson Curatorial Fellow, Harvard Art Museums