When I first saw the ad around town for the Asian Art Museum’s “Lords of the Samurai” exhibition, my heart sank a little. (Really.) The ad seemed to pander to the romantic Western notion of samurai as mysterious, nearly invincible swordsmen. If the AAM was using the samurai as the centerpiece of an exhibit, and accompanying marketing campaign, their ad might have avoided calling up stereotypes. However, this didn’t seem to be the case.
In the ad, a shadowy suit of armor seems to glow against a red background; it’s a menacing image. Unlike other AAM exhibition titles, which are long and descriptive, “Lords of the Samurai” is short and evocative, the punchy words suggesting prestige and power. The word “samurai” is far bigger than any other and stands out in white, suggesting its importance; without further explanation, the viewer can easily project ill-informed associations onto the ad. Altogether, it seems to say, “Come see an exhibit about scary, badass samurai.” Didn’t bode well for the exhibition.
It’s tough to give museums the benefit of the doubt. Most, including the AAM, don’t provide enough historical or cultural context for the public to fully appreciate their permanent collections. And many traveling exhibits staged around hackneyed topics [King Tut, Egypt (Treasures of the British Museum), pretty Monet flowers] seem to take intellectual shortcuts for the sake of indulging patrons’ fantasies.
So how else was the museum marketing “Lords of the Samurai” ? The rather thin exhibition website immediately acknowledges the West’s fascination with the samurai. It then suggests that the exhibition would broaden the patron’s concept of these warriors; “Japanese samurai of the highest rank were also visionaries who strove to master artistic, cultural, and spiritual pursuits.” This wasn’t at all what the ads implied. Perhaps the samurai armor should have been holding a teacup?
A subpage poses the questions, “But what about the historical samurai? How can we learn more about the realities of their lives?” This seemed promising, but the answer largely focused on the artwork of the elite samurai. Did the lords really spend their days making ceramic bowls and painting cranes?
According to the site, the exhibition featured works created by and for the Hosokawa clan, “powerful military nobles with a 600-year-old lineage,” who “embodied this duality of fierce warrior and refined gentleman.” The pieces are part of a collection belonging to Hosokawa Morihiro, former Prime Minister of Japan, whose ceramics are featured in the exhibit and who wrote the introduction to the exhibition catalog. While the provenance of the collection was amazing, and Mr. Hosokawa is certainly accomplished, the exhibition smelled faintly of self-promotion.
More than a little wary, I visited “Lords of the Samurai”. I was quite impressed by the armor and swords, as well as the art. I was particularly enchanted by a folding screen painted with images of birds lifting into flight.
Outside the formal exhibition, there were theater demonstrations. The museum had also set up a “Daimyo for a Day” activity, where patrons could try on armor and sit in a mock Japanese tea room. They were also holding swordmanship workshops, which seemed a little tacky. (While I too want to be a badass swordsman and have best friends tea ceremonies with Shimada Kambei, I realize this is silly and keep it to myself.)
In the end, I felt dissatisfied. Somewhere between the ads and the website, and my too-high expectations, I’d thought I’d learn more about the lives of the lords of the samurai. Moreover, it didn’t seem fair for the museums to get patrons in the door with a popular, warlike image of the samurai, then present the genteel artwork of a specific family.
I was left with familiar issues and questions about the mission of Western museums.
It seems that museums began as colonial-era showcases for exotic artifacts, curiosities, and royal holdings, to be admired by the great unwashed; they weren’t necessarily meant to be educational. Today, they continue to be repositories of pieces selected and donated by wealthy individuals; the AAM itself was founded when Avery Brundage, a wealthy industrialist, donated his collection to San Francisco in 1966. Museums are also funded by wealthy donors and corporations who assumably hold some sway over the content. (And also enjoy tax breaks.) So, though museums are meant for public consumption, they are not necessarily democratic or informative institutions.
Also, the fact that museums exhibit illicitly obtained artifacts may preclude curators from providing the public with too much information about the objects. Curators may not know much about the history and purpose of looted artifacts, as brokers don’t provide them with significant details, or they withhold details for fear of reprisal. Though looting is decidedly against international law, it’s not a bygone practice; the Met and the Getty knowingly purchased looted items as recently as 1985.
Altogether, these factors culminate in a top-down, largely uninformative experience for the viewing public.
While museums can’t be expected to explain all aspects of art history to their patrons, they are perceived as authorities on the art they present. What they communicate to their patrons is generally taken as fact.
So what are museums’ obligations and responsibilities to the public, especially institutions that receive city funds? Can one institution be expected to shift cultural perceptions, and should we rely on individual museums to do so? Should they change their missions? If museums market exhibitions to people using stereotyped fantasies, aren’t they slowly but surely reinforcing stereotypes? What are the achievements of Asian art and culture; are they only the accomplishments of the upper classes?
With these questions in mind, it was a relief to stumble upon the parody website “Lord It’s the Samurai” (via SF Mike), presented by an anonymous collective under the auspices of the fictitious “Asians Art Museum”. While the site design mirrors the “Lords of the Samurai” pages, the content itself brutally deconstructs the exhibition. The home page reads: “Enter the world of the samurai, where more than seven centuries of martial rule are reduced to a single Disney-like trope of gentleman-warrior myth. Military prowess meets cultural connoisseurship in an ideal of masculine perfection–selling militarism as beauty in a time of war. Neither harmless nor innocent, it masks a real history of violence and domination that extends well into the 20th century.”
The site provides seemingly well-researched information about the history of the samurai, and on pieces similar to those in the exhibition: bowls were made by slaves, gorgeous blades were used to mow down tens of thousands of noncombatants, including women and children, during an invasion in Korea. It also details how “at the turn of the 20th century, the samurai code of “Bushidō” (the way of the warrior) was refashioned in a context of Japanese nationalism, and went on to become instrumental in the totalitarian militarism of the 1930s and 40s.” If true, given that the Hosokawa are still among the Japanese elite, and had a hand in staging “Lords of the Samurai”, the exhibition would seem less innocent.
Finally, here was a project that challenged the monolithic might and authority of the museum. While the site may be a little over the top, it has initiated much-needed dialogue about museums and their responsibilities to the public. The collective has done outreach and provided a forum on the project blog, among other activities. The Asian Art Museum itself graciously referenced “Lords It’s the Samurai” on their blog. From what I’ve seen of the online discussion, it seems largely civil.
I’m looking forward to seeing where the dialogue goes.