Grace Williams

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Location: New Zealand
Work: Philosophy, Architecture

a foreign beginner's (incomplete) guide to archaeological museums in Kyoto

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By: Grace Williams
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My partner and I, residing currently in Kyoto, began an attempt to find, visit and map museums in the Kyoto prefecture with a particular focus on its archaeological history: the attempt, with successes and failures, is outlined here. From a list of eleven or twelve museums, we managed to make it to five; of the five we made it to, we managed to view exhibitions at only two of them.

Kyoto prefecture has a rich history of human settlement, with an archaeological history that goes back over 10,000 years, and there are numerous museums of differing sizes with different focuses which introduce its various periods. I took great interest in the common appearance throughout the prefecture of small pockets of agricultural land within high-density suburbs full of apartment units, finding these pockets attractive partly because of their smaller scale, and partly because of the polarity they held against their surroundings. Though it might seem like an odd or silly thing to say, as a tourist on my first visit to Kyoto the agricultural fields did not fit with the picture of Kyoto as a high-density cultural and political capital which I had imagined, and this picture was perhaps what also formed my expectations of what artifacts we would come across at the archaeological museums we intended to visit.

The first museum we visited was the Kyoto City Archaeological Museum, located in the northern part of Kyoto city. The museum was small, covered two floors, and focused particularly on artifacts found in the Kyoto prefecture. The first floor was divided into an information center (with computers and resources relating to archaeology in Japan), a special exhibition room, and a photography room (which was closed when we visited); the second floor was dedicated to the items in the museum collection.There were many examples of pottery to illustrate the evolution of ceramic shapes and materials in Kyoto from the Jomon period to today, accompanied by photographs of the areas they were found in, and examples of pottery from China and Korea in the same time frame for comparison. Some of these were intricately detailed, others flat and devoid of decoration. I found this found interesting, particularly since the items themselves were remarkably preserved (and, in cases where salvage was needed, lovingly repaired), but also because the photographs served to emphasize just how rich in historical artifacts the land upon which Kyoto city was built must be. Many of the photographs of artifact sites were taken in blocks behind apartment buildings or in the gardens of people's backyards. As well, the museum had a display which encourages you to touch pottery items, an engraving on glass of the Rajomon gate, and tools for agricultural production in stone and different metals.

Though the museum's collection was interesting to view, almost all of the display text was in Japanese with no English translation, which was disappointing for us. A museum's grip on the viewer diminishes steeply when the viewer does not understand the relevance of the objects displayed to the story of the exhibition. We could guess at the concerns of some of the displays, based on the odd English word or time frame within the Japanese text, but would no doubt have a fuller understanding if translated text was available. However, the museum's objects were still of interest.

The second museum we visited, the Kyoto University Museum, focused its exhibitions primarily on the research and learnings of the students at the university, so it also felt more intimate and local. The space was larger and better maintained than the KCAM, and the exhibitions varied in discipline, with exhibitions on natural history and technological history as well as cultural history. Of particular interest archaeologically was a permanent-display exhibition on the first floor of artifacts from and about the Jomon and Yayoi periods: objects included stone tombs, pottery, maps, jewelry, figurines and metal tools for fighting and agriculture. Our visitation occurred two days prior to the opening of a new exhibition, so some sections were closed off at the time. This museum, unlike the last, had most of their display texts in English as well as Japanese, so the stories and the links between objects were much clearer, and the purpose and manufacture of the objects on display was not guesswork for us. The period it covered, with particular respect to the cultural exhibitions it had on display at the time, was

I mentioned earlier that we had intentions to visit eleven or twelve museums, but only managed to view two in the end: there were numerous factors which worked to stop us from visiting the others, which are worth mentioning for anybody planning to do the same sort of exploration as us. A time-limit is the restraint which every tourist faces when she plots activities in the country she visits, as is a limit to her budget: the task at hand becomes to organize one's time to fit the optimal amount of activities one can complete given the time and budget on hand. And, as was mentioned earlier, the language barrier was a hindrance too, not just in terms of viewing the exhibitions themselves, but also for finding out information regarding the museums: many of the websites of the museums we intended to visit did not have English versions available. Addresses and contact details were sometimes quite hard to find, and a few of the websites would have these details, but no information whatsoever on their current exhibitions, opening hours and accessibility. Three times we located museums of interest, only to find upon arrival that they were either closed on the day (take note, Monday is the most common day for museums in Kyoto to be closed) or were not displaying exhibitions at the time, a problem very easily solved by updating one's website! And that is not to mention the museums that did not even have a website, Japanese or otherwise. Given the small scale of some of the museums we looked at, perhaps one might infer from the lack of English information available that curators, organizers and funders of some of these museums do not expect many tourists will have an interest in what they have on display. If this is the case, however, the situation is somewhat cyclic, given that information is often what spurs the interest in the first place.

It would be an interesting project to undertake if one were to try and map out these museums and write up a pamphlet for tourists with key information such as opening hours, transport routes and details of the collections held by each museum. For anybody interested in the history of Kyoto prefecture, there is a wealth of objects and information available which helps to build a coherent picture of how those that settled and inhabited the land for over 10,000 years lived and worked. Unfortunately it is a task which we could not complete, but for anybody else interested in taking up the project, or with any questions, ideas or thoughts, please comment on the post or send a message.


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