From Kamakura to Cosplay: The development of the Japanese collection at the Oriental Museum, Durham University
Oriental languages have been taught at Durham University since the University was founded in 1832. This excellence was recognised after the Second World War when Durham was selected as one of five British universities to be developed as a centre for the teaching of Oriental languages. The School of Oriental Studies was founded in 1951 and from this point teaching and research rapidly expanded to included languages such as Ancient Egyptian, Turkish and Chinese.
The first Director of the school, Professor William Thacker, believed that students needed to understand the material culture of the countries they were studying, not just the language and he set about creating a teaching and research collection.
‘An Oriental School which aims to teach the cultural background of the oriental peoples must have a museum at its disposal.’ Professor Thacker
Following on from a number of successful exhibitions on Chinese textiles, books and bronzes and with the teaching collections growing it became apparent that a dedicated museum was needed. In 1957 the Gulbenkian Foundation donated £60,000 to build the first of three planned phases and the Gulbenkian Museum of Oriental Art and Archaeology opened its doors in 1960. Built next to the School of Oriental Studies the museum’s initial remit was to support teaching and research. Over the last 60 years the aims of the museum have changed and while we continue to teach on 42 undergraduate and postgraduate courses we now welcome over 7100 school children annually, our weekly under 5’s group, affectionately called ‘Little Dragons’, and over 33,200 members of the public, a number which continues to grow year on year. We also act a centre for community events such as Lunar New Year, Children’s Day, Buddha’s Birthday, Diwali and Holi.
In recent years the Museum has made a significant effort to collect more contemporary material. In 2012, with the support of the ArtFund Renew Funding we were able to acquire a considerable collection of woodblock prints, manga, digital born art, cosplay costume, street fashion including instantly recognisable Gothic Lolita dresses and contemporary ceramics by artists such as Suzuki Tomio.
Since then we have continued to acquire contemporary material most recently in the form of Jomon (blue) by Junpie Omori. The artist first discovered Jomon ceramics while at university and was instantly struck by their manufacture and presence. He set out to recreate these iconic vessels but for a modern world by glazing them in vivid colours and incorporating words and phrases in English into the swirling, intricate designs.
The most significant development to the Japanese collection came in 2016 with the incredibly generous donation of close to 2,000 objects and associated archive from David and Anne Hyatt King. The collection primarily comprises ceramics, predominantly porcelains, dating from the 17th century up to the mid 20th century, with a particular strength in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Additionally, the donation contained hanging scrolls, Chinese fan paintings, books and a mid 20th century folding screen. The donation has transformed our Japanese collection, and while it will take quite a few years to catalogue and research, some pieces are already being used in teaching and are on display in our Japan Gallery.
In March 2017, Durham University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stuart Corbridge, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the National Museum of Japanese History (NMJH). The MOU was signed by the Director-General of the museum, Professor Hiroshi Kurushima and heralded the beginning of a five year partnership between NMJH and the Oriental Museum. The MOU will focus on the development of a bi-lingual catalogue of the Japanese collections and will see specialists both from the museum sector and academia visit the museum to research the collection. Additionally, Oriental Museum curatorial staff will be working in partnership with colleagues from NMJH on the redevelopment of the Japan gallery, enhancing the offer for schools and the development of special exhibitions.
As part of the MOU a group of 7 masters students from the MA in Museum and Artefact studies at Durham University, have been working hard creating an exhibition on the Meiji restoration. Opening to the public on the 14th of June and running until 9th September, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ will highlight some of the major developments and cultural shifts which occurred during this period. They have also been looking at the strong connections which exist between the North East of England and Japan through figures such as famed ceramics designer Christopher Dresser.
Included in the exhibition will be a number of new acquisitions to the collection including a collection of modern woodblock prints based on popular Japanese video games, a vibrant Yokohama-e triptych and an exquisitely carved noh mask commissioned by the museum and created by master carver Hideta Kitazawa.
To coincide with exhibition, the students have organised a lecture on the 14th July by Dr Elizabeth Kramer (Northumbria University) entitled “To Wear or Not to Wear Kimono: Transnational Fashion Exchange in Meiji Japan and Britain”.
For more information on the upcoming exhibition and lecture please visit the Oriental Museum website or follow us on Twitter (@dumuseums), facebook (Link)and Instagram (@durhamorientalmuseum). The Oriental Museum is open Monday to Friday, 10am – 5pm and Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holidays, 12pm – 5pm.
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