Book: Japan's Art Museums and Photo Collections

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Book review of Japan's Art Museums and Photo Collections. A guide to 48 of Japan's art and photography museums which maintain a photography collection.


Japan's Art Museums and Photo Collections 日本の美術館と写真コレクション

Reviewed on: 2002-05-23 Last modified: 2005-04-03

Published: 2002-04-10 Publisher: Tankosha ISBN: 4473018946 Price in Japan: ¥2,100 Qualities: Soft cover, B/W photos Size: A5, 186 pp. Language: Japanese (museum names in English) Author: MATSUMOTO Norihiko 松本徳彦

This book was written to encourage more people to see photo exhibitions at Japan's museums. Since photography has always been at the bottom of the art world's totem pole, it needs all the help it can get for people to visit fine-art photo exhibitions.

Most people go to art museums to see paintings or sculpture, not photographs. And the art world's emphasis on paintings and sculpture certainly outweigh that of photography. As far as the art world is concerned, photography is still a niche field, not in the mainstream. Which is so ironic because in the everyday world, you see photography everywhere.

I have to confess that I myself prefer to look at paintings rather than photographs in an art museum. I'm always more impressed by a good painting than by a good photograph. This is the truth, and I accept it even though I am a photographer and not a painter. (Of course, if I had a talent for painting, I would be a painter instead.)

For instance, I think a painting of a geisha (especially a Nihonga painting) is much more impressive than any photograph of a geisha. And those pornographic, ukiyoe woodblock prints called shunga look much more erotic than any porno photograph you'll ever see or find. Yes, photography will always end up last in the art world.

But photography does have its strong points. Its instantaneous ability to record the truth and to document the world around us is unsurpassed. So it comes as no surprise that documentary photography is the largest and strongest field in photography. It is closely followed by commercial photography (products and advertising). Fine-art photography, I'm afraid, is last, even within photography itself.

Due to this handicap and "low image" of photography, art museums in Japan started quite late in acquiring and preserving photographs as part of their collections. In 1979, a committee called the "Committee for the Establishment of Photographic Art Museums in Japan," consisting mainly of members of the Japan Professional Photographers Society (JPS), was formed to lobby the government and art museums to establish a photography museum and photography collections at art museums.

It took about 10 years for their efforts to bear fruit. In 1988, the Kawasaki City Museum established a photo exhibition room, followed by the Yokohama Museum of Art in 1989. In 1990, the temporary quarters of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography opened in Ebisu. These were Japan's first public museums to collect and exhibit photographs.

In the private sector, the Ken Domon Museum of Photography in faraway Sakata, Yamagata Pref. was built in 1983 to become Japan's first private museum dedicated to photography. Eventually, more museums started collecting and displaying photography.

Today, according to the book's author, there are over 100 public and private museums in Japan which keep some kind of photography collection. Of these, he picked 48 museums which either have a dedicated photography exhibition room or hold periodic photo exhibitions.

He introduces the 48 museums in an easy-to-follow format. For each museum, there is a rundown on the museum's history and background, facilities, photography collection, and past photo exhibitions. The name of the museum is also in English, but the address and directions are in Japanese only. The only other thing in English is the museum's phone number and Web site URL.

A few sample B/W photos from the museum's collection are also inserted. This book will be a valuable reference for PhotoGuide Japan's PhotoSpaces page when I update it the next time. I see that I have to add quite a few more museums to the list in PhotoSpaces.

In 1994, the Committee for the Establishment of Photographic Art Museums in Japan was disbanded upon the completion of the permanent quarters of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. Their original goal was to have a national museum of photography established in Japan. However, they were satisfied with a Tokyo metropolitan museum dedicated to photography and bequeathed their original goal to the future generation.

I think it was a mistake to disband the committee. They apparently did not think about follow-up and support activities. It's great that they succeeded in establishing the photography museum, but establishing a museum is only the beginning, not the end. A museum needs a lot of care and support on ensuring its financial survival and useful public function. Public support and a good number of visitors are essential. The Committee should have stayed together to make sure the photography museums would succeed in attracting enough visitors.

The fact is, even the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Japan's largest photography museum in Japan's largest city, is struggling to attract more visitors and it continues to operate in deep red ink.

One problem is the museum's physical situation. Although the museum is in a popular shopping complex (Yebisu Garden Place), the museum is in an obscure corner of the complex. The museum's front entrance also faces the wrong direction.

Most people go to the museum from Ebisu Station, so the museum entrance should be facing the train station. However, when you walk from Ebisu Station and face the museum, what you see is actually the partially hidden backside of the museum. So most of us enter the museum through the back entrance which looks like the museum employees' entrance. Its impressive, front-entrance facade hardly catches anyone's eye because it is well out of sight on the opposite end where there's nobody. The architect made an awful mistake.

Another problem is that photography is not a big draw compared to other forms of art. The museum has realized this and so they have started to show animation films (charging admission) and non-photography exhibitions. It is no longer a "pure" photography museum. On a recent visit, I saw a "Thunderbirds Are Go" exhibition with some of the puppets on display.

It's a shame that the museum has had to resort to such things just to get more people to come. It started in 2000 when Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara appointed a heavyweight businessman to be the museum director with the main goal of stemming the museum's red ink. Until then, the museum director was always a veteran photographer or critic. But the Governor thought that photographers were not good at fiscal management and wanted a company man to run the museum.

First, it was Yasuyoshi Tokuma who was the 78-year-old president of Tokuma Shoten, a large media company with interests in publishing, music, and movies. He started showing animation movies loaned from his company. Unfortunately, he died within 6 months and was replaced by Yoshiharu Fukuhara, the 69-year-old chairman of Shiseido Cosmetics Co. who is the current museum director. Director Fukuhara wants more public involvement in museum activities, but admits that he has a very limited budget to work with. It's going to take a long, long time for the museum to start operating in the black, if it is at all possible.

The dismal condition of Japan's largest photo museum should be of major concern to Japan's photographic community. (The situation at other photography museums in Japan is probably similar or worse.) Without a leading example of how a photo museum can be viable in Japan, other local governments will hesitate to build a photography museum in their areas. Photography might then forever be relegated to only a little corner or space in an art museum.

And there's always the possibility of the museum closing or being converted to another art museum with photography pushed aside. That would be a tremendous shock and setback for Japan's photography world. An advisory committee should be formed to devise and implement countermeasures to get more people to visit photo museums. One little book like this won't do it. (Reviewed by Philbert Ono)