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  • Public Properties: Museums in Imperial Japan by Noriko Aso
  • Kendall H. Brown
Public Properties: Museums in Imperial Japan. By Noriko Aso. Duke University Press, 2014. 320 pages. Hardcover $99.95; softcover $27.95.

Tokyo museum exhibitions regularly occupy top spots in the annual international ranking of best-attended art exhibitions. And Japanese audiences are much more likely to buy exhibition catalogues than are Europeans and Americans. In sum, Japan has created an effective museum culture: its public is well habituated to museum going, and the country is defined, both at home and abroad, as a peaceful and progressive “culture nation” (bunka kokka; p.3). In Public Properties: Museums in Imperial Japan, Noriko Aso offers a clear and comprehensive history of how this museum culture was created within the evolving modern nation-state.

Aso’s study is part of a growing literature that investigates how concepts of “Japan,” “nation,” and “art” were deployed through the formation of museums and the collection and display of art objects. Following recent books by Satō Dōshin and Alice Tseng, Aso examines how and why the state invested heavily in museums as integral tools in creating an “imagined community” of imperial citizens. Importantly, Aso expands on that scholarship by exploring the shifts in both message and method that are apparent when one looks at the imperial museums in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nara; at the museums created by colonial authorities in Taiwan and Korea; at three private museums; and then, finally, at Japan’s department store exhibitions. Her nominal focus is how museums produced imperial publics, but, most basically, the book discloses the productive tensions between public and private, center and colony, metropole and hinterland, and government and industry. This complex study of modern museums both rearticulates the familiar top-down expressions of state authority and reveals counterdiscourses from within and without. Even if the role of the public is never fully explicated, Aso’s portrait of imperial-era museums is compelling for its presentation of their fissures, fractures, and expedient sutures.

Public Properties begins by locating the roots and tracing the evolution of modern exhibitionary culture. The first chapter, “Stating the Public,” outlines the lingering Edo practice of product display (bussankai), the importation of European museum models, and some of the pressures underlying the system of international and domestic expositions. Although in the introduction Aso seeks to deploy shifting notions of “publics” and “public-ness” as a frame for understanding the goals and realities of museums, it is perhaps only in this chapter that we encounter in detail how visitors to these early exhibitions and museums were taught—disciplined through regulations—to perform as modern viewers.

The second chapter, “Imperial Properties,” focuses on the Imperial Household Ministry’s usurpation of national museums in order to increase imperial prestige, the physical structures accompanied by the creation of cultural property preservation [End Page 345] laws, and an art historical narrative privileging “fine art” (bijutsu) as well as aristocratic culture (along with warrior heritage, in judicious measure). While much of that material will be familiar to students of Meiji art history, Aso’s third chapter, “Colonial Properties,” presents a fresh challenge to the notion of a univocal and all-powerful imperial museum apparatus. It explores how the colonial governments in Taiwan and Korea built imperial, yet local, museums that spoke to the shared and individual identities of their constituents, and did so in ways that differed dramatically from each other. The local imperial identity effectuated in Taiwan was based on a holistic view of Taiwan as a “native place” distinct from China and made manifest in museum displays centered on natural resources. By contrast, an evolving complex of museums in Korea was intended to co-opt the prestige of the Korean royal family and aristocracy by making public the Korean imperial palace, replacing the cultural authority of the Yi dynasty with the “superior” values of the earlier Goryeo dynasty, granting the government authority to collect (confiscate) and preserve (control) private objects, and recasting modern art in Korea as exclusively Japanese.

Chapter 4, “The Private Publics of Ōhara, Shibusawa, and Yanagi,” shifts attention to the formation of private museums created by industrialists and intellectuals, arguing that such...


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pp. 345-348
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