Asian Studies scholar Morgan Pitelka‘s “Samurai Exhibit Pwned,” which we blogged previously, was also posted to the Japan Art History Forum. The following is a response by Hollis Goodall, Curator of Japanese Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), reproduced here in its entirety with permission. We have added emphasis to the parts we found particularly relevant to our concerns, but for those interested in museum practices, the post as a whole gives insight into criticisms and questions raised from a museum curator’s perspective. Our response on this site follows Goodall’s below.
“I appreciate so much the information about the parody site and the Asian Art Museum’s blog discussion, both of which were provocative. Morgan’s writing was so thoughtful, and Deb’s was non-defensive, and accepting of criticism, difficult I’m sure considering the level of vitriol expressed in the parody. I think the points raised in the blog, in particular, are worth discussing at the (Smithsonian Institution’s) Freer/Sackler’s proposed meeting of Asian Art curators next spring. There are a couple of aspects of this that I wanted to address and ask for reactions. One is the priority of institutions to bring in what LACMA’s president, Melody Kanschat, so poetically calls, “gate.” (i.e. people coming in the door) As public museums, we have a dual duty to encourage our public, woefully underinformed in their education about Asia, to look at unfamiliar works of art from foreign cultures, and simultaneously to advance the field of art history. As you can imagine, these priorities sometimes clash. The Asian Art Museum’s marketing department apparently got the reins on promoting the gate, calling the exhibition, “Lords of the Samurai” (too close to “Lords of the Dance”), and putting a Darth Vadar-like image on the poster. The promotional video was cute and silly, and fairly insulting to the whole idea of the samurai. I have to admit that though I sincerely trust the brilliance of my colleagues at the Asian, I entered the exhibition with trepidation after that intro. I found that the exhibition did not really tell a story. There were individual objects, many exquisite, others purely historical in value, laid out in a way that did not inform about the priorities of territoriality and battle, the function of the daimyo, though it was clear that the Hosokawa family had really good taste. The exhibition space is challenging, I know, but there was way more about armor envy than there was about battle. My impression, and please disabuse me if I am incorrect, is that when one is dealing with a single family and a single lender (Hosokawa and the Eisei Bunko) the exhibition narrative can be seriously impinged upon by the priorities of the lender. For one thing, to receive the cooperation of someone as esteemed as Mr. Hosokawa, one may not feel particularly free to bandy about concepts like whacking noses and kidnapping potters. Also, the lending museum probably had very specific ideas about what they could allow to travel, based upon conservation requirements and wishing to avoid endangering works of art by shipping them. In a perfect world, I think a better concept for a show about samurai would be to include works from several lenders specifically for the purpose of creating a balanced message and lucid story. Another topic I would like to raise in this light is the input from the education department at museums. Deb and Kristin Bengtson at LACMA are people of exceptional talent, and I have always found Kristin’s contribution to any project to be fruitful. I have heard complaints about other educators at LACMA, however, and at other institutions who have planned educational programming and dumbed down curators’ labels for exhibitions so as to not frighten off the general public. This can cause friction between the curatorial and education areas of a museum, and needless to say, like the marketing department priorities, can result in oversimplification. I’d love to hear comments about this factor, especially from Deb who is so admired by the curatorial staff at the Asian.
I was very interested in Morgan’s comment about giving more space to Bolitho’s writings and perhaps less to Cleary’s. We need input like this from our academic colleagues. A couple of years ago, presentations at a celebration in honor of Stephen Addiss indicated possibilities for fruitful interchange between academics and curators. Those presentations were divided into morning and afternoon sessions with professors speaking in the morning and curators in the afternoon. It struck some of us that professors concentrated on single areas in great focus and felt uninformed about the variety of genres in Asian art, whereas some curators felt that they knew a little about a lot and that professors’ work must be interesting because they could really focus in depth. (This may not be relevant in a museum that specializes in Asian art). When I first started working in the Japanese pavilion at LACMA 21 years ago, having done lots of nice study on Edo period painting, someone came in with an over-painted yatate and expected me to know everything about it. This is reality, and it breaks into the curator’s consistent, deep study of the state of the field. On the other hand, the curator’s reality allows for contributions of cross-media and cross-cultural observations. I do hope that in light of these complementary approaches, the shared work of curators and academics in exhibition catalogs can be rigorously reviewed, as Morgan has suggested. Thanks for your attention to my blathering.
Curator, Japanese Art
We consider the suggestion that issues raised by this project get taken up at a meeting of Asian Art curators at the Smithsonian Institution to be a significant measure of success, because it indicates that whether or not the pressure exerted from our action on one small retrograde institution results in policy changes therein, it will have in fact played a role in shaping the discourse around the exhibition of Asian Art on a national level. Whether or not the museum chooses to respond constructively to our criticisms, they now need to face up to critique from the community of their professional peers.
We have succeeded in putting the museum on watch, among the Asian American community, among Asian Studies scholars, and now their own professional community of Asian Art curators.
We find it amusing that Pitelka receives credit for the idea of giving more space to Bolitho over Cleary, since the idea originated in our interview, and have to laugh at the exclusive institutional practices that deem us forever outsiders in spite of the fact that we are the generative source at the heart of the hopefully productive discussion. At the same time it’s worth noting that Goodall’s commentary as a museum professional, along with the comments of Pitelka and other scholars, again supports the critique and questions put forth by our art action. We haven’t seen any credible attempts to refute or discredit the content of our work, and the response by what is emerging as a range of voices coming from sources viewed with established legitimacy seems so far to be generally speaking in consensus with us.
How will the museum respond?
[Update: ArtsJournal.com's Real Clear Arts blog asks "What should the museum do?"]