The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco has been targeted by an anonymous artistic and political intervention that parodies the current Lords of the Samurai exhibition with a well designed website and a series of pamphlets distributed in San Francisco. The website is worth exploring, and becomes particularly interesting when paired with an interview with the anonymous critics on the 8Asians website.
Many in the museum world will feel that the parody is entirely unfair. The museum is a non-profit organization dedicated to education, and museum staff include many of Asian heritage as well as many respected scholars who have advanced degrees in Asian art history. In addition, some recent exhibitions at the museum have attempted to deal (not always very explicitly) with the history of Orientalism, such as the recent one on photographs of Asia, particularly South Asia.
One might also respond that at present museum exhibitions are not subject to the same kinds of peer review and scholarly criticism that help improve other forms of educational production. Other than the occasional newspaper review of a blockbuster exhibition, and the odd blog post by a volunteer scholar/critic, exhibitions and their catalogs rarely receive the kind of critical attention that they deserve. I have long argued that museums are probably the most important scholarly site in the world we live in for mass education about other nations and cultures. (TV and films reach more people, but are usually less grounded in scholarship and have less of a veneer of objectivity and authenticity.) A good specialty academic monograph might sell a few thousand copies. Many copies will go to academic libraries, where they might be read by multiple generations of students (we hope!). A big museum exhibition, on the other hand, might draw in 10s or even 100s of thousands of visitors. The AAMSF’s 2007 exhibition “Yoshitoshi’s Strange Tales,” for example, attracted almost 80,000 visitors, or approximately 931 per day according to The Art Newspaper‘s “Exhibition Attendance Figures,” 189 (March 2008) . Bigger Asian art exhibitions, such as the Freer Gallery of Art’s exhibition “East of Eden: Gardens in Asian Art” brought in well more than 200,000 visitors.
Most museum professionals are entirely aware of the incredible responsibility they have in putting on exhibitions that often substitute for a nation’s entire history. Curators know that visitors might feel that having visited a show on the samurai, they have in effect visited Japan itself. This is the wonderful power and also the great danger of the museum; it reduces social and cultural complexity, not to mention historical variation and diversity, to a few beautiful objects.
Topics like the samurai and the geisha are certainly valid subjects for museum exhibitions, and in these difficult financial times, must be attractive themes as guarantees of significant visitor traffic. But why not call attention to the problematic mythologization of these figures, as the Pacific Asia Museum’s 2009 exhibition “The Samurai Re-Imagined: From Ukiyo-e to Anime” did? Why not, as the parody of AAMSF’s exhibition suggests, pay attention to less well known aspects of samurai culture and history, whether that be sexuality, the reality of war, Japanese aggression in Korea, or modern wartime appropriations of the samurai image? Or why not, as the interview suggestions, highlight the more nuanced scholarship of Tom Conlon or Hal Bolitho instead of the work of Thomas Cleary? These are valid and important questions, and the controversy illustrates the need for more scholarly and critical attention to the politics of display of Japanese art.