Story 10: Cultural Learning - Two Models

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Teen Tokyo

Written by Leslie Bedford

Thanks to a Fulbright Fellowship and formal leave from the museum, I spent l986-87 living with my family for the first time not in conservative Kyoto but in the buzzing and increasingly international capital city of Tokyo. I had an entire year to think about the future of the program, to observe how my own two children discovered Japan, and to work on my language skills. This was also the last year Mike was at the museum and when I returned it was to a new director, Ken Brecher, and with ideas about a new exhibition that would be explicitly about what our two countries had in common–the global youth culture I saw everywhere in Tokyo. With my vastly improved grasp of Japanese, a new network of friends from Tokyo, and the strong support of Brecher, I got to work with new confidence and, shortly thereafter, new staff.

In some respects Teen Tokyo, aimed at a core audience of kids between the ages of nine and fifteen, was a more bicultural project than the Japan house and program had been. We hired a cultural translator; she was young, smart, organized, knew the difference between Japanese and "crazy" and kept us on track. There was an in-house Japanese designer as well as Japanese program staff, and we had a Tokyo office working with us to bring in other experts. In retrospect I realize I had learned a lot from those tough earlier years. Not only was my language better but so was my understanding of Japanese ways of working; with people who trusted my leadership, I could see cross-cultural work as collaborative rather than an exhausting tug of war. But also and very importantly, the vision had changed; we were looking for common ground as a way to explore cultural differences and not the other way around.

One section of Teen Tokyo really serves to capture this convergence: an object theater called Tetsuo's Room. (Object theater, pioneered by Taizo Miyake at Science North in Ontario, Canada, in the l980s, uses computer-based technologies to provide a theatrical experience rather like a sound-and-light show.) It was based on the actual living space of a close friend's family in Tokyo. Her children and mine had attended the same nursery school. There were tatami mats and a futon to sleep on, but there was also a desk and chair, television and computer, toys, books, school uniforms, sports equipment, and so forth. It was the crammed though orderly environment typical of urban middle class Japanese life, the one I had yearned to create in the Japan house. But visitors experienced it from behind a screen. We had solved the problem of presenting real Japanese home life without costly and constant maintenance concerns but in the process substituted a "minds on" experience created through computer technologies for the "hands-on" exploration of real stuff.

Teen Tokyo, a 3,000-square-foot interactive, media-rich exhibition was very popular and well-reviewed by both Americans and Japanese. To my delight I discovered that the Japanese—including individual donors, corporations and foundations—were eager to support a show about youth culture that highlighted manga, anime, fashion, Japanese baseball, electronics, and other phenomena with global market appeal. This was the modern Japan they wanted the world to appreciate. Using our new connections in Tokyo—and with planning and implementation funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities—we went to Tokyo many times and were able to raise the $1 million (a huge amount for the time) needed to develop the exhibition. So, beginning in April l992 the museum had two big exhibition spaces devoted to Japan with a concomitant doubling of programming, school tours, workshops, interpreter training and the like. To everyone else in the museum and to many visitors, it must have seemed too much, too many resources devoted to one culture. And with this new exhibition on a different floor and at the other end of the building, we had clearly exploded the old "Plum Pudding" model.

While I had loved the five-year process of working on the exhibition, once it was over, I was ready to move on. During my last year at the museum I worked part-time as director of exhibition research and development, a wonderful if short-lived role that enabled me to visit other places, read and think, and share ideas about exhibitions. It proved a natural bridge to my next position in an urban history museum and then later, I now realize, to teaching at Bank Street College of Education.

During my last year in Boston, thinking ahead to the future of the program, I reviewed a file of old resumes and found one from Shoko Kashiyama, a highly educated, personable, and creative young woman who was born in Tokyo and moved to San Francisco in elementary school. Her initial field was classical music but she was also interested in education and had written asking about possible positions with the program. To my amazement and delight a year later, she was available for permanent employment. Completely at home in both America and Japan, Shoko embodied the spirit of Teen Tokyo and the new direction of the museum's cultural programming. I hired her and after she and the other staff threw me a great goodbye party, I left for New York knowing I was leaving the program in very competent hands. Shoko served as head of the Japan Program for several years under the leadership of Lou Casagrande, the museum's next president. She eventually earned a master's degree in arts education and moved to New York City. Her successor was an American of Philippino background with several years experience in Japan, which to me signaled the museum's embrace of the new multi-ethnic, global reality. The program has continued to grow and change in response to new institutional priorities.

Next: Part 2: Connecting Academe and Communities: The Harvard East Asian Project