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December 2023 message from the Executive Director

Japan continues to surprise. I write to you from Kitaakita city, famous for its World Heritage Jomon period stone circles at Isedotai, overlooking the stunning scenery of the beech-clad Shirakami mountain range straddling the border between Akita and Aomori prefectures. The automatic doors leading into my hotel have been deactivated. Why? To stop the bears who have taken to wandering the streets of the city from gaining access of course! The first major snow of the year fell a couple of days before I arrived. The white stuff has made a rare appearance in Norwich too – on the very same day as our Institute Christmas tree.

We are all looking forward to the festive holidays but we have plenty to enjoy beforehand. Our last event of the year is our December Third Thursday Lecture on Thursday 21st. We are delighted to welcome John T. Carpenter, Mary Griggs Burke Curator of Japanese Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, back to Norwich.  John has been involved with the Institute from its inception in 1999 and will be speaking about Nihonga paintings – you can read more about the topic and book your place here. Our international audience will be pleased to hear that this is also being livestreamed via Zoom, but please do join us in-person for the lecture on UEA campus if you can and celebrate the start of the festivities with a mince pie and some sake with us afterwards.

The Sainsbury Institute Christmas tree arrived on 1st December and is keeping our Norwich headquarters feeling festive through the dark winter days.

Earlier this month, we were delighted to host several visitors culminating in a series of important events on Thursday 16 November. Kikkawa Hideki, Head of the Archives Section, Department of Art Research, Archives and Information Systems at Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties (Tobunken) joined colleague Maizawa Rei, currently visiting scholar at the Institute and Senior Researcher in the same department at Tobunken, for a visit to London to explore libraries and archives with Sainsbury Institute colleagues Miwako Hayashi-Bitmead and Akira Hirano. Miwako has spent the last decade working on an exceptionally important collaborative research project with Tobunken, cataloguing exhibitions and publications on Japanese art outside Japan. In the new year Miwako is moving on to a new role at the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation. We thank Miwako profusely for all she has done for this project and to nurture our relationship with Tobunken, and wish her every success in the new job.

We were especially honoured to welcome Minister Okazaki, Director of the Japan Information and Culture Centre at the Embassy of Japan in the UK, and Secretary Morimoto to Norwich for the first time. On what proved to be a very busy day we also welcomed Rev. Kobayashi Hideto of the medieval Buddhist temple of Hasedera in Nara to Norwich, as well as representatives from the Hokusai Museum in Obuse.

Our visitors from the Embassy of Japan and Tobunken enjoyed viewing a special display of some of our collections with colleagues in the Lisa Sainsbury Library.

After a tour of the Institute and the collections of the Lisa Sainsbury Library followed by lunch at the Sainsbury Centre hosted by the Chair of our Management Board, Professor Sarah Barrow, we spent the afternoon enjoying a series of special events. Maizawa-san, an expert on the history of Buddhist art in medieval Japan, began with a gallery talk in the impressive surroundings of the Living Area where she discussed some of the Japanese objects in the collection, situated amongst the works of Francis Bacon, Giacometti, and Leiko Ikemura to name but a few. This was followed by a performance of shōmyō (Buddhist chanting) by Kobayashi-san in the same setting – a unique experience for staff and visitors to experience a world-renowned and historic musical tradition in an important Norwich landmark (you can watch an example of the chanting here). Maizawa-san then gave a lecture on Arhat painting (depictions of Buddhist deities).

Maizawa-san guided attendees through the Living Area (the main gallery space at the Sainsbury Centre) to discuss some of the important Japanese objects in its collections.

Given the focus on medieval Buddhism during the day, our Third Thursday Lecture that evening was the perfect way to round off the events of the day. Professor Yukio Lippit (Jeffrey T. Chambers and Andrea Okamura Professor of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University), spoke about the Shōsōin Imperial Treasury, Japan’s most famous art collection. Professor Lippit discussed how we might better come to understand the nature of the original ninth-century bequest to the treasury, and frame it in terms of a carefully selected group of objects that would both represent the Emperor Shōmu as an exemplary Buddhist ruler and aid him in his spiritual journey after his death. We are very grateful to Professor Lippit for providing such a stimulating and engaging talk. We will have a full report on this talk in our next issue.

Kobayashi-san performed shōmyō in the gallery space, next to a figure of a female Shinto deity.

Just prior to our Third Thursday Lecture this month, also at UEA, this year’s edition of the Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference will be taking place between Monday 18 – Wednesday 20 December. Dr Andy Hutcheson, Research Fellow at the Centre for Archaeology and Heritage here at the Institute, has been working hard with UEA colleagues to bring together an excellent programme of talks and panels across the three days with a focus on Climate Archaeology. The conference is an excellent opportunity for experienced academics and archaeologists to engage with early career researchers and young students in the field – I have always found it to be a particularly dynamic environment for archaeological discussions and would encourage anyone with an interest in the future directions of the discipline to attend (you can find more information on the TAG website here).

The Sainsbury Centre Sculpture Park has just been enhanced by the arrival of a new iteration of Usagi Kannon, the rabbit-shaped Boddhisatva of compassion and mercy by Leiko Ikemura, marking another stage in our collaboration with this artist. 2024 will see the publication of a book arising from this project which did so much to sustain us through the difficult pandemic years.

2024 will mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Institute, and we look forward to bringing you more news on the activities and plans we have to celebrate this landmark year. On behalf of everyone at the Sainsbury Institute, we wish all our readers a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Best wishes,
Professor Simon Kaner
Executive Director