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?