The Empty Museum: Western Cultures and the Artistic Field in Modern Japan

By Masaaki Morishita. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010. 160 pp. $99.95 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-7546-4954-0.

There is an unfortunate dearth of books in Western languages on the sociology or history of museums in Japan so Morishita’s The Empty Museum: Western Cultures and the Artistic Field in Modern Japan is a most welcome contribution. He focuses on the current situation of several of many of Japan’s national and prefectural art museums dedicated to providing exhibit space without building of their own collections. The book is based on his 2003 sociology dissertation at United Kingdom’s Open University. Morishita has since returned to Japan and works at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University and is a Visiting Researcher at the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo.

Morishita’s original 329-page dissertation is available free as a PDF at the British Library’s Electronic Thesis Online Service. The dissertation has somewhat more historical and theoretical content. The published version is far more readable, and has a few more illustrations, as well as a miserly 3-page index. More importantly, it is updated in terms of adding around a dozen pages on the five-year old National Art Center, Tokyo (NCAT). It is fitting that Morishita begins and concludes his study with the NCAT, as the focus of his book is explaining the Japanese concept of an “Empty Museum.” By this he does not mean, he explains, a “museum without audience, which seems to be the case for inner-city museums in the United States” (1) or virtual museums, but rather describes museums without collections, akin to German Kunsthalle, which offer visiting exhibits. Constructed in 2007 at a cost of ¥38 billion, with 150,000 square feet of exhibition space, NCAT is the pinnacle of this approach to the purpose of a museum. Morishita makes a case that this museum philosophy is not a poor step-child of the Western art museum model, but is a response to the tensions between the (internationally-minded) evolving world of Japanese art curators and the iemoto (家元) tradition of art in Japan, by which grand masters of art schools control what art is approved.

Before giving a critique, I should briefly share my approach to the work. As the work of librarians, archivists, and museum professionals comes closer together under the heading of cultural heritage information professionals, I believe we educators in these LAM professional/ graduate schools need to interact with each other’s research in order to bridge the different culture, terminologies, and philosophies. This applies equally to domestic and foreign literature, although in the latter case calls for reviewers to begin with a postmodernesque summary of their relationship to the subject. As the work in question today is a study of Japanese national museums and the agency of the curator, I should point out that I am not a scholar of museums, especially in Japan, but have done some research on libraries there. My experience in Japanese museums has only been as an interested visitor.

With that understanding, I found the majority of the book a fascinating study, especially his coverage of the controversy between two competitions/exhibits held at the Tochigi Prefectural Museum. To simplify the situation, the “Tochigi Problem” emerged because of a disconnect between two competitive exhibits held by the museum. One was open to artists in the prefecture, and was primarily controlled by established artists who were affiliated with various iemoto art schools. The other competitive exhibit was open to artists in a few surrounding prefectures in Northern Kantō, and was under the control of the museum’s curators who applied “modern” art principles, rather than accepting the aesthetics and hierarchies of the local branches of Japanese art schools. Morishita explores how Japanese museums have responded to the various definitions of art, modernity, and nationalism/internationalism. He argues that Japanese museums should not be seen as unidirectionally accepting of Western models of development, but rather that they are “complex hybrids, consisting of concepts from both Western and Japanese cultures” (8). He uses theory to support the emergence of the “empty museum” as such a hybrid model.

In the introduction, Morishita wrote that his theoretical concern “is to suggest a combined use of the conceptual framework of transculturalism and Bourdieu’s field theory” (p. 15). He explains that transculturalism is a postmodern concept describing the interplay between dominant (or colonial) powers and subjugated groups. While I understood his efforts to deconstruct the raison d’être of the empty museum, I was not terribly moved by the effort, especially since the brief history in his book almost ignores the key period of the U.S. Occupation of Japan (1945-1952), during which the first “empty museum,” the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, was established (1951). We know that the Occupation’s Civil Information and Education Section tried to purge what it saw as feudal elements from Japanese government and society, including the Ministry of Education, which oversaw national museums. They also tried to decentralize government power, and encourage the use of adult education, libraries, and cultural centers to force “democratization.” Was this simply a coincidence? The relative absence of this history from Morishita’s book is most unsatisfying from the perspective of a historian trying to understand his emphasis on transculturalism. On Morishita’s use of Bourdieu’s artistic field theory, I have to agree with Caroline Turner’s review in reCollections: A Journal of Museums and Collections, that he seems to use field theory “primarily to demonstrate the irrelevance of most of the theory to the Japanese situation.” I was not sure if this was Morishita’s initial intent, but was left wondering. Perhaps, I was especially critical of Morishita’s theoretical efforts since he neglects so much about the current situation and recent history by so intently focusing on making his theoretical argument. Japanese scholars might benefit from such a narrow frame, but considering the foreign audience, the tunnel vision is a disservice. For example, Morishita mentions the “museum boom” a few times, and even features a table listing the development of 75 prefectural art museums in Japan between 1920 and 2010, but never even briefly hints at reasons behind this boom. Was this because of an explosion of artistic development throughout the nation, or because some factions of the then ruling Liberal Democratic Party were supported by large construction firms? Any theories might be very relevant to explaining this boom as well as the concept of “empty museums.” Perhaps another theoretical approach might have prioritized these research questions. I also was surprised that there was no discussion of private art museums in Japan, which might have added context, especially for a foreign readership. We certainly know that there are complex relationships between art collectors, philanthropists, academics that privilege certain arts over others. I was also disappointed that although the book was published in 2010, he does not cite or engage with emerging research on Japanese museums, such as Alice Tseng’s The Imperial Museums of Meiji Japan (University of Washington Press, 2008).

Despite these frustrations or remaining questions, I found the book very interesting. Morishita offers detailed coverage of internal museum politics. It is almost as if he had been conducting ethnographic research at the time. This is because he conducted 17 interviews between 2000 and 2001 with curators and art historians involved with museum politics in Japan. These interviews offered rich insights into the worldview of Japanese museum curators of the time.

Educators of Library and Information Science might be most interested in what is basically a question of the agency of curators in determining what should be collected. In many ways, this parallels the education for and practice of librarians and archivists, who make selection/deselection decisions concerning their own paper and digital collections. Librarians might also be especially pleased with Morishita’s conclusion, as he ends the book by suggesting that it is NCAT’s Art Library that meets part of the museum’s mission and serves as “a potential mediator between the art group and the curator and their respective exhibitions” (127).

Andrew B. Wertheimer, University of Hawaii at Manoa Library & Information Science Program