Tokyo National Museum Research & Information Center


A review of the Tokyo National Museum Research and Information Center (東京国立博物館資料館), Tokyo, Japan.

I was first introduced to the Resource and Information Center of the Tokyo National Museum shortly after beginning graduate school. Most recently I have been visiting the Center to conduct dissertation research on several handscrolls 絵巻物 associated with the Emperor Go-Shirakawa 後白河 (1127-1192). The Center is located within the Tokyo National Museum grounds, but despite the high volume of museum-goers, the Center remains remarkably quiet. I always have found it to be a particularly welcoming and productive space and am happy to introduce it here.

I imagine the Tokyo National Museum  東京国立博物館 is familiar to most scholars whose research has brought them to Tokyo. The institution occupies several buildings. Entering the Main Gate 正門, the Main Building 本館, which primarily houses the permanent collection of Japanese art, is in the distance beyond a fountain. It is flanked by two other buildings: on the left, the Meiji-era Hyōkeikan 表慶館 (closed at the time of writing in November 2012) and to the right, the Tōyōkan 東洋館, which houses the collection of Asian art (closed for renovation, but reopening 2 January 2013). A curving path to the left of the Main Building leads to the Heiseikan 平成館, the venue for large-scale special exhibitions (with archaeological objects in subterranean galleries). In addition to these four buildings, a short path to the immediate left of the Main Gate leads to the much-acclaimed Gallery of the Hōryūji Treasures 法隆寺宝物館. Often overlooked, however, is the nondescript building that houses the Resource and Information Center 資料館.

It is difficult to categorize the Center as either an archive or a library; it is an advantageous mixture of both. It only opened in 1984, more than a century after the Museum’s founding, and so began operation already in possession of a rich archive. This archival material is complemented by an ample library of over 220,000 volumes and 7,000 periodical titles in a variety of languages. Most of this material is behind closed stacks, but the staff-to-patron ratio is generous, making materials readily available.

The Center, like the Museum, can be accessed via the Uguisudani or Ueno stations on the JR Yamanote Line and is open 9:30-5:00 most weekdays (Opening Hours).  It is important to note that these hours do not always overlap with the hours of the Museum grounds; i.e., on days when the Museum is closed, the Center may still be accessible.

Keep in mind that there are two ways to enter. If one wishes to have access to the exhibition spaces and gardens, then one will need to purchase admission and enter through the Main Gate that faces Ueno Park. Once inside the gate, one walks towards the Main Building but veers left and follows a narrow path just to the right of the Hyōkeikan. This leads through a gate to the building housing the Center. On the other hand, if one prefers to forego the Museum grounds, or if the Museum is closed, then one should enter through the West Gate (no fee required). This gate, located across the street from the National Diet Library International Library of Children’s Literature, can look rather official and off-putting, but simply mention to the guard that you are going to the shiryōkan and you will be issued a pass after signing in.

One of major advantages of the Center is its ease of use. It is open to the public. One need not prove affiliation or secure a letter of introduction. Upon entering the building one should deposit personal items in a coin locker (be sure to have a 100-yen coin handy). Coincidentally, the Center shares its entrance lobby with the Toppan Museum Theater, which screens high-definition “virtual reality films” concerning cultural properties and their contemporaneous spatial contexts. For some, the parting of ways in this lobby, and the juxtaposition of these two modes of art history, may give a sense of perspective to the research at hand.

The intimacy of this space facilitates direct interaction with the staff and does away with the red tape associated with larger archives. One does not need to register formally, but upon entering one should stop by the reception desk and pick up a small badge to be worn throughout the visit. The regulations are fairly routine: pencils only, no personal photographs, no food, no loud talking, and so forth. Photocopies must be requested at the Reception Desk and there is a limit of 25 pages per item and 100 pages per day (an A4-size copy is 30 yen if monochromatic, 100 yen if full-color). After requesting permission to copy, one fills out a form at the Reception Desk, copies the item at the photocopiers nearby, then brings the copies to the front desk for confirmation and payment.

The catalog of the Center’s holdings is available online and several computer terminals near the Reception Desk are available for catalog-searching. Once the desired title is found, select the radio button for that item, press the “Reservation/Request (予約・請求)” button, and a completed request slip will emerge from a small printer nearby. Write one’s name and badge number on the top of this form, submit it to the Reception Desk, and the item is usually delivered within minutes. For those who prefer to come extra-prepared, it is possible to print these forms with one’s own printer before coming to the Center.

For many researchers, the most exciting feature of the Center is its collection of approximately 350,000 color and monochromatic photographs of art objects in the Museum’s collection. Of these, approximately 319,000 have been pasted onto cards and arranged in numerous metal file cabinets by medium. Although this may seem antiquated to some, these photographs are an indispensable resource. It can be difficult to find high-resolution images of some works, and research into even the most well-reproduced objects is enriched by seeing these earlier photographs. One might be able to see the pre-restoration state of some materials, angles that are rarely visible when exhibited, or the particular detail photographs that may have sparked certain academic debates. For those more familiar with digital resources, this return to the analog can be refreshing. The photographic cards are “open,” so to speak. One is free to pull them at will, but leave a place-holder for each removed card. Part of the pleasure of this system, beyond its utility, is that it makes the research prerogatives and exigencies of previous generations (think of Aby Warburg or perhaps Max Loehr) immediately tangible.

It should not go unmentioned that the reading area itself is a pleasure to use. It is quiet and relatively spacious, with several carrels, large tables, natural lighting and views of the garden. Throughout are bookshelves equipped with a comprehensive assortment of standard reference materials for research in art history as well as several related disciplines such as history, literature, and religion.

In my experience, the reference staff has been more than accommodating and has always surprised me with the depth of their knowledge and willingness to direct me to resources I had not thought to request. An added benefit of this location is that if there is a work that one cannot find in the Center’s collection, it is likely available at “Tōbunken,” the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo 東京文化財研究所, located just five minutes away.

Vending machines are plentiful, and with a little work, one can find excellent and reasonably priced lunches to the south of Ueno Station. Moreover, a visit is a great excuse to take in any of the other offerings of the greater Ueno Park area. The park has recently undergone renovation (inevitably, it now hosts a deluxe Starbucks: “Oshare-bucks”?) and there are numerous other cultural institutions within a twenty-minute walk. This all serves to make a visit to the Center particularly attractive.

Relevant Links (one can switch between several languages at the upper right corner):

Tokyo National Museum Research and Information Center
Digital Image Search
Web Archives

Kristopher Kersey
Department of the History of Art
University of California, Berkeley

I would like to thank Ms Sumihiro Akiko, Photo Archivist and Librarian at the Center, for welcoming this review and granting permission to photograph inside the Center. I also would like to thank Professor Gregory Levine for introducing me to this archive.

Image: Photograph by Kristopher Kersey.


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