Sunday, October 12, 2014

Museums as Re-imagined History? (Dylan)

My usual habit when I travel is to go right for the local museums, so a blog post about one shouldn’t have been terribly difficult.  Except that they’re all in Japanese.

Old family names do not make it easier.
While I’m sure that museums in areas of Japan that see more foreign tourism probably have most things labeled in English, up in the less-travelled northern half of Tohoku, English labeling is understandably minimal.

he one mitigating factor is that some sites in the area do still get some international tourism, and in this area the main one is the village of Kakunodate, and particularly the samurai estate of the Aoyagi family.  The estate has now been transformed into a museum featuring the possessions of the Aoyagi, distributed throughout the grounds.  The organizing principle is simply to keep things where they were kept when they were in use (or so the English labels seem to say).


On the other hand, I admt, this does seem a strange room for an amory.
So I’m writing this based off the more limited English-language information and without the ability to comment on what might have been said in Japanese or how that might change the nature of the exhibits and what they’re conveying.

The setup of the museum isn’t really any different from other historical museums I’ve been to.  With the focus on displaying artifacts where they were kept, it maintains the same setup and provides the same information that museums of the same type I’ve visited in the U.S. and U.K. provided.  Actually, in the English, there’s less sharing of folklore than in those other museums, so it might be less interested in regional or national mythos.

Because the Aoyagi family built the estate right around the transfer from the Edo Era to the Meiji Era, the exhibits do feature a sometimes odd mixture of traditional equipment that wouldn’t even be out of place in the latter days of the Sengoku Era and equipment that was clearly introduced in the Meiji Era, including a remarkably large exhibit of phonographs.

The question posed for this blog post was to search for signs of how history is being reimagined in Japan as a part of local, regional, and national identity.  But while maybe there’s something in the Japanese exhibit explanations that I couldn’t pick up on, so far as I can tell, in this museum there was a conscious effort to not do anything of the sort, and while they certainly do take pride in having been home to such a notable family as the Aoyagi, they’re going to maintain the pursuit of historical neutrality (even if that’s futile – another story) and avoid the romanticization of the past that it’s so easy to fall into.  I could dig through everything I saw in the town until I pulled up something, but – if I wasn’t able to immediately pull out anything from this trip, if I have to work to find any evidence of history being reimagined instead of being presented as plainly as possible in the hope that that can be avoided, isn’t that, itself, notable?

In the end, the story the museum was trying to tell was the history of a local and once-notable family.  There was a fair amount of local pride in it, as one would expect.  But the exhibits were still largely treated like museum exhibits, with a handful of people (including myself) trying to read everything and everyone else mostly pursuing a photo op, the museum the sort of local landmark that everyone must visit because it’s there and well-known.  Still, it’s a good museum, and if you can read amore of the kanji than I can, I definitely recommend paying it a visit if you’re in Tohoku.


Crystaline Hoover said...

Hmm, I think it's really difficult to make a judgment when you're unable to understand the language. Was there something that specifically gave you the idea that they were trying to be as neutral as possible? I'd imagine at the very least they could be presenting things in a positive light, as it might be rude to air the Aoyagi family's secrets. Given the commercial nature of the museum, could it perhaps be presenting an idealized vision of life as a samurai? Do you know who owns the museum? Is it state-run, or is it managed by the descendants of the family?

Dylan Hackler said...

Having gone back there with a Japanese speaker who was more interested in the topic, I can confirm that they were presenting things pretty bluntly, with minimal commentary beyond a label and basic description of function when necessary, which as I'm used to it is the standard museum method of attempting neutrality. At the time I was guess off of what seemed to be a sparsity of commentary (now confirmed). I don't think they were idealizing samurai life simply because they spend so little time discussing it.