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Cultural Immersion and Plum Pudding
Written by Leslie Bedford
Mike liked to talk about "plum pudding" as a new exhibit model. Like the classic British dessert chock full of many ingredients, a single exhibit, often known as a "content area," was composed of many resources in close proximity for easy access to different kinds of learning. In the Japanese House, for instance, collections, a workshop room, resource center, reading room and staff offices were assembled together in one place. The goal was to enable the visitor, of any age, interest or level of expertise, to create his or her own connections among them. For years, the museum had developed exhibits and programs on different topics in tandem often spinning off complementary kits, curricula, and outreach efforts in the process. But the arrival of the house, an artifact of indisputable "museum quality" brought the process to a new level. The Japanese House opened in l980. One year later, with substantial funding from private and public sources in the United States and Japan, in particular through an endowment drive facilitated by museum trustee Yori Oda, the museum created the Comprehensive Japan Program Area. This gorgeous new "plum pudding" occupied an entire museum bay and offered visitors an extraordinary array of experiences and materials for learning about Japan.
Visitors entered the area through a small introductory exhibit, designed to orient them to Japan, Kyoto, the house and how it was built. (In the '80s, after a museum staff person filed suit against the museum for failing to make the house handicapped accessible, the back third of the intro space was made into a relatively unobtrusive ramped entrance. From the intro space the visitor walked onto a streetscape flanked by the facades of neighboring homes from the Nishijin weaving district where the original house had stood for almost l00 years. A window looked into the spacious Japan Study Storage, an innovative approach to collections which, when staffed, was open to visitors, and when staff was unavailable, provided constant visual access to the hundreds of collection objects displayed in simple drawers and on wooden scaffolding.
Another window offered visitors a view of additional exhibits. For instance, in keeping with the neighborhood concept, one year it became the storefront of a typical shokuten (small eatery) displaying plastic versions of donburi, ramen and other common dishes on glass shelves. Next to it, a doorway opened into the tiny "reading room" stocked with books and other resources and to adjacent staff offices. Because Mike believed staff should be accessible public resources, the staff office door was half-glass, later to be pasted over by staffers who wanted greater privacy.
Across the street, which ended in a giant photomural of Nishijin, was a door into the Japan Multipurpose Room, the setting for everything from workshops for teachers to fish printing for kids to a farewell party for Miss Kyoto's return trip to Japan. As additional exhibit space, this room provided a secluded site for the 1988 exhibition of Japanese artists Toshi and Iri Maruki's drawings for children about the bombing of Hiroshima.
Finally there was the house itself: Kyo no machiya (literally a "townhouse from Kyoto") sometimes abbreviated to Kyo-machiya but more often simply known as the Japanese House.
The range and versatility of these spaces enabled the museum, frequently in partnership with the local Japanese Language School PTA and other organizations, to create multifaceted programming for every conceivable audience. The most elaborate was the annual Oshogatsu, or Japanese New Year, when every space became an activity center: a display of the traditional New Year's rice cakes and tangerines in the tokonoma (a traditional Japanese style alcove reserved for the display of Japanese wall-scrolls and art objects) of the newly cleaned house; tea ceremony in the tea room; mochitsuki (pounding rice cakes) in the multipurpose room; tours of Study Storage; kendo (a Japanese martial art), sushi making, puppets, films, and seasonal decorations in every window and corner. Visitors entered this immersion into Japanese life under a canopy of l08 orange metal gates, a local Japanese artist's vision of the orange lacquered tori gates at the famous Kyoto shrine of Fushimi Inari.
The authentic environment of the machiya allowed us to host orientation sessions for travelers to Japan, seminars for architecture students, and demonstrations of tea ceremony and straw sandal making. But most importantly, every day visitors could take off their shoes and step onto the smoothness of tatami floors, slide fusuma doors and see how they altered the size of interior spaces, view shifting patterns of light through the translucent shoji screens and discover the spare beauty of an enclosed garden. Those lucky enough to go upstairs encountered the ultimate aesthetic experience: the sublime beauty of the tea room with its black cherry tokobashira (traditional natural wood alcove pillar) and its marvelous yukimi-mado (snow viewing windows). Anyone was welcome to discover and marvel at the wooden ofuro tub and the always enticing toilet, which was both modern but also squat and had a nifty little spray of water with which to wash one's hands.
The Japanese House exhibition was total immersion–or as close as we could get to it– in another world. True to the progressive museum theories of the Spock era, staff facilitated visitor learning, employing the bountiful resources and teaching strategies at their command to encourage people to move from beginning learner—how to kneel correctly on tatami or use chopsticks–to increasingly sophisticated levels of knowledge of language, architecture, history, and family structure.
In the academic world a long-term conflict exists between "area studies," such as the in-depth immersion of the Japan Program, and cross-cultural or "comparative studies." Area studies dominated the 1970s, but over time—especially as the museum embraced the field of multicultural education and focused on the ethnicities of its local communities— the sheer reach and depth of the Japan Program became anachronistic and problematic. "A museum within a museum" no longer fit the institutional mission. And as Japan's role in the world began to decline, the anomaly became more apparent, as Leslie Swartz explains later in this chapter.
Next: Collections of Objects or Hands-on Space?