Research continuum

Crossroads of the world & the mind

Ancient stone caskets. A Malaysian jungle. Hieroglyphic inscriptions.
Medieval documents. Nobel prize work. Racks and racks of flora and fauna preserved in formaldehyde.

These are just a small fraction of the treasures housed in the Kyoto University Museum. Join current and former directors Hidetoshi Nagamasu and Naoko Iwasaki on an exclusive tour as they explain how and why they’ve broken the mold of the standard university museum.

Crossroads of the natural and human sciences

The Kyoto University Museum of today — its vast halls filled with artifacts and natural objects from a broad expanse of human and natural history — has its origins in the early 20th Century, beginning as a repository for historical collections amassed by members of the then Faculty of Letters.

Even in those early days there were occasional exhibitions for the public, but by and large the repository was considered more as an archive for research, many of the items having been classified as valuable cultural property, putting them outside the scope of public display.

Attitudes began to change in the post-WWII era when the national Council for Science and Technology began contemplating the value of biological specimens as possible cultural property.

“There is still a debate about whether or not biological specimens can be considered valuable cultural property,” explains museum director and botanist Hidetoshi Nagamasu.

There is still a debate about whether or not
biological specimens can be considered
valuable cultural property.

“These objects tend to be undervalued and even get ignored or discarded as time goes by and leadership changes. The idea that these samples are equally as important as cultural artifacts was actually a strong impetus for establishing the current museum.”

The crossing of the humanities and the natural sciences began in 1986 with the building of the current north wing, designed to house humanities collections. At the time, a separate ‘natural history museum’ was to be built nearby.

However, plans changed in 1997 when the University decided to merge the two buildings into a single unified university museum, which opened in 2001 with the humanities and the natural science wings connected by a large central lobby.

Former director Naoko Iwasaki (left) and current director Hidetoshi Nagamasu walking atop the tropical rainforest canopy exhibit, part of the permanent collection in the south wing.

Crossroads of inner and outer

“One of the key features of our museum is that the main entrance faces west, opening onto the avenue of Higashiôji-dôri, one of the main north-south thoroughfares in this part of Kyoto,” states Naoko Iwasaki, scholar of Japanese history and former museum director. “This was by design.”

Typically, visitors to university museums must first set foot on the campus and then make their way through a maze of buildings in order to reach the entrance. The original plans for KyotoU’s museum similarly called for an entrance facing east, toward the inside of the campus.

Ministry approval for construction, however, only came after the design was altered.

How this happened is a bit of a mystery.

“How this happened is a bit of a mystery, but ministry decision makers seem to have reasoned that the University’s repositories are a collective good for all,” Iwasaki explains, “and hence must be opened and shared with the public.”

This thinking likely had its start with the ‘lifelong learning’ movement, spearheaded by UNESCO in the 1970s, pushing universities to become more open. Today, the museum’s entrance stands proudly open, extending a warm welcome to the community with posters and banners for current exhibits.

Continues Iwasaki, “At the time we first opened, local taxi drivers didn’t know where to go when asked to drive to the Kyoto University Museum. Now it’s better known than the University’s main gate.”

Crossroads of research and education

So from all of the museum’s vast collections, how to choose what to display?

As the museum was being designed — and continuing up to the present — what to show to the public has been a topic of heated debate. Most of the artifacts and samples, after all, were collected by researchers for their own work, but what is invaluable for scholars might not be appropriate or interesting to display to public visitors.

Active education programs have long been a key to the solution, especially when targeting younger visitors. Raising the academic rigor of the museum and merging the purpose of research with education have been found to effectively mark a pathway toward a meaningful answer.

“Displays and explanations at Japanese museums typically aim for a middle school level,” says Nagamasu, “but our intention was to have everything, from the layout, design, and concept, presented at somewhere closer to high school level.”

Part of this strategy is to have researchers whose work is being presented improve their communication skills, qualities especially vital for graduate student volunteer docents at summer and weekend programs.

Surprisingly, however, these ideas initially met with some resistance.

There was little precedent for running such programs at a museum, and senior researchers were concerned whether their students’ time would be effectively used. But quickly the benefits became apparent: not only did the students’ communication and teaching skills improve, but the bond between the University and the Kyoto city community strengthened noticeably.

Nagamasu, who was involved in the creation of the museum in its current form, describes the immense task of modeling a tree in a Malaysian jungle using a life-sized cast.
Iwasaki explains the origins of the museum’s archaeology collection and the scientific methods used to preserve and catalog it, seeded by a grant of Egyptian artifacts from UCL.

“We now meet regularly with the city’s Board of Education and work together to develop museum programs,” explains Iwasaki. “This has continued for nearly 20 years, and I can image that some of our earliest visitors were inspired to apply to Kyoto University because of our work.”

In part thanks to these initiatives, the museum has become a model for other institutions in Japan. And after so many years of success it is now doubtful whether the museum could exist without these programs. Strong community ties have made Kyoto University a pioneer in museum management in Japan.

Nagamasu continues, “One reason this was possible was our high degree of autonomy. Most departments and researchers at KyotoU are generally free to do what they want. This freedom gave us a good foundation to pioneer the museum model in our own way.”

The museum continually benefits from a diverse group of researchers who are passionate about sharing their work, bringing in other interested individuals to spearhead unique exhibits.

“It always feels like a fresh learning experience. We constantly need to flex our imaginations to think of ways to best present certain research topics or exhibits. Thankfully, our curiosity and creativity have never let us down,” says Nagamasu.

Our curiosity and creativity have never let us down.

Crossroads of the future

What’s next for the Kyoto University Museum?

Recent feature exhibitions have consisted of larger, more elaborate, and more interactive displays showcasing a broad range of disciplines. Curators and researchers are also exploring featuring more work from the humanities and the visual arts.

Meanwhile, collections continue to expand along with advances in the university’s broad spectrum of inquiry. And the museum continues to forge ahead with its own research while communicating the results to the public.

“We’ve been challenging tradition for 20 years now, and we intend to keep up the pace in outreach and imagination. There are still numerous untapped resources throughout the university which we’ll continue to explore and dig out for everybody to learn and enjoy.”