A museum curator’s response

3 09 2009

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.
Hollis

Hollis Goodall
Curator, Japanese Art

LACMA”

Our response:
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 asksWhat should the museum do?“]

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7 responses

4 09 2009
br3n

I’m really glad that this exchange was brought to my attention. It raises all kinds of academic questions, but i’d rather focus on the museum questions: when the curator(s) developed the exhibition, who did they believe they were there to serve? Visitors knowledgeable, not knowledgeable? Did they worry about offending the donor if they were to challenge audiences’ assumptions about geisha or Samurai? The focus on the art of the materials is appropriate but is that an end in itself or is the art a means to an end. For example, is the art (beyond being beautiful) a means to reinforcing orientalism or an opportunity to challenge romantic notions? How would the storyline differ if the educators developed the interpretation, say, based on the curator’s scholarship? And then, of course, there is, as always, the gate. Is the primary focus getting as many people in as possible and if yes, building on audience’s romantic notions about warriors? Lots of questions. Thanks for the challenge.

10 09 2009
asiansart

Note: according the head of their PR/Marketing department, the Asian Art Museum’s own chief curator has acknowledged the legitimacy of the concerns raised by this intervention.

12 09 2009
mpitelka

Hi folks, I was asked to repost this message, which I sent to the JAHF discussion list yesterday. It continues some of the discussion from JAHF and from my blog post at http://froginawell.net/japan
http://www.froginawell.net/japan/2009/08/samurai-exhibit-pwned/

****

Colleagues,

After a very hectic start-of-the-semester, I finally found time to return to some of the messages I received related to the AAMSF’s samurai exhibition. Thanks to those of you who commented on my “Frog in a Well” blog post or replied to JAHF.

I have been struck by the continuing lack of JAHF discussion related to the exhibition and its parody: the overwhelming majority of the emails that I received were sent off-list, which is a pity, but which also highlights part of what makes the parody so interesting. I think that many of us feel uneasy about criticizing an exhibition (or in this case seeming to approve of a particularly brazen critique) for fear of offending a friend or colleague at a museum. We depend so much on the generosity of museum staff that protecting relationships with curators trumps the kind of honest–and sometimes harsh–discourse that is common in book reviews in journals and other forms of peer review. Museum work is also often very collaborative; many of us have had the experience of participating in small or large ways in exhibitions and catalogs and may therefore feel reluctant to find fault in a process and product that is complicated, messy, and inherently imperfect. Our collective reluctance to weigh in, it seems to me, is part of the context for the production of the samurai parody.

I’ve also been thinking about the parody in terms of which complaints are general and which are specific. Much of the criticism on display in the “Lord, it’s the Samurai” parody website focuses on characteristics of the AAMSF’s exhibition that can be found in almost all exhibitions of samurai art and culture. Certainly the 1988 catalog _Japan: The Shaping of Daimyo Culture, 1185-1868_, the 1989 catalog _The Tokugawa Collection: The Japan of the Shoguns_, and the 1990 catalog _Court and Samurai in an Age of Transition_ (not to mention most samurai exhibits in Japan) all focus on similar types of objects, avoid substantive discussion of issues such as male-male sexuality or the Imjin War, and highlight the “bun-bu” paradigm (which the parody website calls “a single Disney-like trope of gentleman-warrior myth”). We might even say that the AAMSF’s exhibition is fairly typical of museological displays of samurai art and culture in Europe, North America, and Japan. That doesn’t lessen the importance of the critiques, but it does perhaps shift the focus from specific problems in the AAMSF exhibition to general problems in the field.

Some of the criticism in the parody, however, does seem to be particularly and specifically applicable to the AAMSF’s exhibition. Hollis suggested that the marketing for this show was less scholarly and more hyperbolic than usual, creating a problematic gap between the expectation and reality of the exhibition. The parody also highlights the lack of references to historical scholarship on the samurai in the catalog and other materials. Previous exhibitions (and catalogs) such as those named above included major contributions by scholars of literature, history, and religion as well as art history. I haven’t seen the catalog yet, so I am hesitant to comment on this part of the whole exhibition package, but the selection of Cleary over, say, Karl Friday or Tom Conlon is striking. I wonder if these decisions are related to our tough financial times and the hope that the exhibition would be popular? Hollis raised this in her message: the problem of “gate.”

I was also interested in Hollis’s comment on the role of donors, lenders, and/or the Japanese government in shaping exhibitions and catalogs in ways that might not be preferable from the curatorial or scholarly point of view but that are necessary to get a certain object or to sustain a certain relationship. I don’t know if that was an issue in this particular show, but I know that in the case of the recent samurai exhibit at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, the show was completely organized and arranged by officials in Japan, surely an extreme example but indicative of a common trend in shows that borrow from Japan. I encountered a version of this problem when involved in a very minor capacity with the Hon’ami Koetsu show organized by Felice Fischer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2000; I remember that at one point, it seemed possible that I might write the tea bowl essay in the catalog, but in the end, it had to be someone from MEXT. I personally wish that all of these complexities could be acknowledged and somehow woven into the tapestry of the show, but that, of course, goes against all the rules of museum display.

Many other issues come to mind as being relevant here–the social history of the particular community in which a museum resides; the history of discourse between the local community and the museum; the huge changes occurring in the relationship between theory and practice in some academic art history programs; and the organizational hierarchy within the museum–but this message is too long already. Thanks for your patience.

Morgan

12 09 2009
mpitelka

One more point: I was definitely following the lead of the Asiansart intervention 8asians interview (both of which were extensively cited) in highlighting the inclusion of Cleary over academic historians. Great work!

18 09 2009
Respecting Culture vs. “Having Fun” « asians art museum's samurai blog

[…] This is the kind of promotion that has been described by a major museum’s distinguished curator as “fairly insulting to the whole idea of the samurai.” […]

25 09 2009
Anne

I must make a response to one of the highlighted points from the essay by Hollis. Blaming educators for programming and labels that are “dumbed down” is blatant scapegoating. While I cannot speak to the quality of all educators, I know that in my work and the work of my fellow educators at our Asian art museum, we are lone voices trying to offer alternative perspectives on the art beyond the tropes of treasures, kings, mystery, etc. At least in our museum, educators are not involved in creating titles or labels, and our programming is designed to offer multiple voices and perspectives to counter the institutional voice that assumes that exoticizing the topic is “what the people want.” The work we do to counter stereotypes, bring issues into a contemporary dialogue, and press for deeper contemplation of some of the less “sexy” issues, is tolerated by our curatorial staff and leadership, but certainly not supported in any meaningful way. I will say that done properly, the public can get enjoyment out of these experiences–it’s a myth that wrestling with important issues and having a sense of humor and play are mutually exclusive. This website is a case in point. There have been occasions in our museum where for the Marketing department’s promotional purposes, the exotic becomes the selling point (which the educators object to) but there rarely seems to be an objection from the museum as a whole for some strange reason (“dress up”, etc for adult donors) The points that this website makes and many of those that Hollis makes are important ones, but please do not blame educators who work are often working “guerilla style” to bring depth, balance, and alternate (if not conflicting perspectives) to some of the more egregious examples of orientalist musem exhibitions.

29 09 2009
More voices from the inside « asians art museum's samurai blog

[…] Anne, an educator at another Asian art museum, speaks to her own education staff’s efforts to bring informed, alternative perspectives and counter […]

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