The Imperial Museums of Meiji Japan

Architecture and the Art of the Nation

Alice Y. Tseng

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  • Published: 2008
  • Subject Listing: Asian Studies / Japan; Architecture
  • Bibliographic information: 304 pp., 91 illus., 39 in color, 7 x 10 in.
  • Contents

It was not until Japan's opening to the West during the Meiji period (1868-1912) that terms for "art" (bijutsu) and "art museum" (bijutsukan) were coined. The Imperial Museums of Meiji Japan documents Japan's unification of national art and cultural resources to forge a modern identity influenced by European museum and exhibition culture. Japan's Imperial Museums were conceived of as national self-representations, and their creation epitomized the Meiji bureaucracy's mission to engage in the international standards and practices of the late nineteenth century. The architecture of the museums, by incorporating Western design elements and construction methods, effectively safeguarded and set off the nation's unique art historical lineage.

Western paradigms and expertise, coupled with Japanese resolve and ingenuity, steered the course of the museums' development. Expeditions by high-ranking Japanese officials to Europe and the United States to explore the burgeoning world of art preservation and exhibition, and throughout Japan to inventory important cultural treasures, led to the establishment of the Imperial Museums in the successive imperial cities of Nara, Kyoto, and Tokyo.

Over the course of nearly four decades, the English architect Josiah Conder, known as "the father of modern Japanese architecture," and his student Katayama Tokuma, who became the preeminent state architect, designed four main museum buildings to house the national art collection. These buildings articulated the museums' unified mission to preserve and showcase a millennium-long chronology of Japanese art, while reinforcing the distinctive historical and cultural character of their respective cities.

This book is the first English-language study of the art, history, and architecture of Japan's Imperial Museums, the predecessors of today's national museums in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nara. The Imperial Museums of Meiji Japan examines the museums' formative period and highlights cross-cultural influences that enriched and complicated Japan's search for a modern yet historically grounded identity.
Alice Y. Tseng is assistant professor of art history at Boston University.

"A rigorous, closely argued yet broad-reaching analysis of the formation of Japan's three national museums in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nara. By clearly demonstrating how and why Japanese museums, no less than their European and American counterparts, used transnational styles to express national ideals, the author situates Japan squarely within international cultural discourses of power, empire, and political legitimation."
-Christine Guth, Royal College of Art and Victoria and Albert Museum, London


1. Encounters and Translations: The Origins of Hakubutsukan and Bijutsu

2. The Museum in Ueno Park: Styling the Nation

3. The Age of the Imperial Museum

4. The Imperial Kyoto Museum: Locating the Past within the Present

5. The Imperial Nara Museum: Administering History and Religion

6. The Hyokeikan Art Museum: Debating the Permanent Place of Art



"Imperial Museums of Meiji Japan offers more than specific analyses of several iconic Meiji buildings and their complex contexts. . . it suggests a basic paradigm for studying architecture in modern Japan not as a series of buildings or as the work of particular designers, but as a set of intersections between discourses that range far outside the formal, spatial, and technical dimensions that until recently occupied historians of Meiji architecture."
-Monumenta Nipponica

"While Tseng's focused study may at first attract those who have a direct interest in the topic, the book's engrossing, eloquent narrative works it into a volume of uncommon general appeal. Comprehensively viewed, the book moreover addresses issues not only advancing architectural and museum studies in Meiji Japan, but also straddling the far-reaching concerns of empire, nationalism, modernization, westernization, cultural heritage, and cultural policy at the same time that it delves into localized concerns of the administration of the Imperial Household, the formation of the Imperial Museums' collections and the evolution of their treatment of object-artifacts."
-Museum Anthropology Review

"Clearly written and handsomely produced..This knowledgeable study highlights the political purposes and architectural designs of the four institutions, with secondary attention to their collections and exhibitions."
-Journal of Japanese Studies

"Tseng's presentation is smart, deft, and clean. Her writing is crisp and steady, rather elegant at times, and mostly free of burdensome jargon. The volume is graciously and colorfully illustrated with many striking images-some captured by the author herself-that please the eye and edify the mind. This work should prove rich enough in technical architectural details to satisfy those who are so inclined. Tseng marshals an admirable range of source materials, both visual and textual. In addition to the buildings themselves, she consults architectural plans and drawings, official and private reports by designers, critical reviews, and even a novel, all to good effect. Her assessment of these materials is insightful yet judiciously measured as to inspire confidence in the reader. In sum, Tseng's strong work contributes much to an emerging scholarship on cultural struggles and public exhibitions in Meiji Japan."
-Journal of Asian Studies