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Holding Exhibitions at the Library

Hideyuki Fujiwara
Manager, Special Collections (Waseda University Library)

This spring, an exhibition entitled "The National Treasure Ashura and Masterpieces from Kohfukuji" was held at the Tokyo National Museum. This exhibition attracted over 940 thousand visitors, the highest attendance in history for Japanese art at the Tokyo National Museum. Furthermore, starting from this summer, this will transfer to the Kyushu National Museum, where it will most likely again attract a large number of visitors. I recently visited the National Treasure Museum of Kohfukuji Temple, located in the city of Nara. The Ashura statue is normally displayed in this museum. Of course, the Ashura statue was not on display when I visited, and the case which normally holds the Tenryu Hachibushu (8 guardian deities of Buddhism) and the Judai Deshi (10 disciples of Buddha) was half-filled with the wood-carved Junishin Shoryuzo (statues of 12 gods). A sign proclaiming that the "Ashura statue is on loan to another collection" was posted at the entrance of the museum, and inside the museum was quiet without visitors such as school children on field trips.
It is true that the Ashura statue is one of the most famous Buddhist statues in Japan. However, for that very reason, haven't many people already seen the statue at Kohfukuji Temple? Why do people wish to view the statue once again at the Tokyo National Museum, even if it means waiting in long lines? There are undoubtedly a variety of reasons why people wished to come before the Ashura statue, such as never having seen the statue before, forgetting the statue after seeing it long ago, or feeling soothed and comforted by the child-like gaze of the statue. On the other hand, some people may have been drawn to the museum in Ueno by a strong interest in the Ashura statue and other accompanying statues as works of art, rather than by feelings towards the Ashura as a Buddhist statue. For these people, it may have been intriguing to see the statue from closer than is normally possible and to see it from a variety of angles, as well to observe in one collection a variety of rare objects which are not normally displayed together.

Incidentally, let's assume that a library is generally regarded as a place to read books. Or, more specifically, as a place that an individual (sometimes a group) possessing a certain interest visits in order to browse and survey materials of a variety of forms (or media). Another interpretation of a library is as a place where a person (or persons) with no particular intent wanders into and browses the books on the shelf. These views of a library are mostly true. At libraries, materials and people confront each other in what is basically a one-to-one relationship. This can be called the complete opposite of an exhibition, where several dozen people gather to view one certain material.
However, exhibitions are sometimes held even at libraries. At such times, libraries show the face that is similar to a museum. This is different from the normal face of a library. In other words, these events provide an opportunity to experience the materials of libraries from a different viewpoint than normal. In the remainder of this article, I would like discuss the significance of holding an exhibition at a library. My discussion will be based upon examples from the Waseda University Library.

Waseda University possesses two museums: the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum and the Aizu Museum. Every year, these museums hold a variety of special exhibitions in addition to their permanent exhibitions. Furthermore, other specialized space (125th Anniversary Room and Waseda Gallery) is prepared within the university, and the space is used to hold a wide range of exhibitions. Additionally, the library itself also displays its own unique collections several times throughout the year. The exhibition room contained within the library building is mainly used as the venue for these exhibitions, but materials are sometimes transported to facilities outside of the university.

Poster for Library Fair & Forum (Yokohama), November 2008

To begin with, an exhibition may be thought of as an opportunity to convey information regarding collected materials. This definition holds true in the case of both libraries and museums. Exhibitions take on a variety of aspects, such as displays featuring unique dimensions of the collected material, and memorial exhibitions to commemorate the acquisition of newly acquired material. There are also exhibitions held in order to convey a certain message. An important mission of educational and research institutions exists within all of these opportunities. That mission is to prevent collected materials from being buried in obscurity (from "dying in storage").

In recent years, due to a variety of circumstances, there are an increasing number of art museums and other museums that do not feature the collected materials of that particular museum. Instead, these museums hold special events (including displayed material) which are brought in from outside sources such as television programs, newspaper companies and publishing companies. However, in essence, an exhibition provides the opportunity to publicly display materials.
Particularly in the case of art museums and other museums, annual plans are constructed around special exhibitions held in the spring and autumn. For this reason, it seems that the majority of time for daily survey and research activities is allocated to these seasons. If this is true, then it may be correct to assume that the holding of events is a major objective for the museums. Of course, all of the museum's objectives will not be reached simply by achieving it. Even so, exhibitions hold a position as a major portion of the operations for each museum.

Joint exhibition with the Association for Heian Period Literature (May 2009)

Conversely, although the scale of activities may vary, institutions such as universities libraries often displays related material to coincide with a variety of academic conferences and research conferences, or to coincide with regional events. From the beginning of the 2009 academic year, the Waseda University Library has already been involved in the holding of 4 exhibitions since April. 3 of these exhibitions were jointly held with academic conferences and research institutions, and the remaining one was held by Waseda University with support from the regional Alumni Association (WUAA). In this case, the exhibitions were positioned as an opportunity for mutual sharing of information with conference members, and as part of the public relations activities of the university. In other words, this is not an objective itself, but rather is used as a method for achieving other goals.

In addition to the outwardly directed merit of increasing public understanding towards the library by allowing a great number of visitors to view collected library materials, there are also merits for the planning side such as increased knowledge and experience for managers involved in the exhibition. Particularly in the case of a library, not all staff is involved with the material, especially classic writings, on a daily basis. On the contrary, the opportunity to interact with not only classic writings but also with ordinary material has decreased due to the increased outsourcing (consignment) of operations. Even assuming that a staff member works in close proximity to material, there are few libraries which possess permanent exhibitions and almost no institutions which devote a specialized staff member for the project. Amidst such circumstances, exhibitions provide a rare opportunity to directly interact with classic writings, and it is needless to say that being involved in such an exhibition is an extremely meaningful experience for each staff member. In the case of the two Waseda University museums mentioned earlier in this article, the planning and operation is performed mainly by curators and research associates. However, an internal Exhibition Committee has been established at the Waseda University Library. Planning and operation of all exhibitions is performed by 4 library staff members, including the Chairman of the Exhibition Committee. Other library staff members participate as needed beginning from the planning stage.
What kind of exhibition can be held using materials from the library's collection? What material will serve as the main attraction and what other materials will be included? As shown by these questions, consideration must be given to both planning and materials. Amidst such circumstances, it is no easy task for committee members to combine their knowledge in order to construct an exhibition. However, the experience of planning adds a small amount of confidence to each individual involved. Repeated involvement in the event planning is a valuable experience that is directly related to ability as a library staff member.

"Rivaling Warlords!!" exhibition (March 2009)

Of course, an exhibition is made complete only by the presence of visitors. No matter how much pride the producer feels towards the plan and no matter how significant it is, the meaning will be greatly reduced if there are only a few visitors. The exhibition must satisfy the desire to see and know that is felt by visitors and library users. For this purpose, it is necessary to display in a unique way. A university library tends to be labeled with a strong academic image and even the names of the exhibitions cannot shed this stiff impression. When looking at past records held at the Waseda University Library, there are many such formal titles.
In recent years, we are trying to create endearing titles in order to avoid a stiff image. At the same time, we strive to realize a high-quality exhibition in terms of material. One example of an unconventional type of title is the exhibition "Rival Warlords!!-From Warring States to a United Country-", which was held this spring. A suit of armor (also displayed as part of the library's collection) dated from the Azuchi-Momoyama Period was largely featured on posters for the exhibition. Thanks to the image presented by the title and the poster, it seems that some people were surprised to learn that the exhibition was being held by a library. This one was also successful in terms of public relations, and the number of library visitors during the period was unusually high. In the future, it is necessary for to be conscious of these kinds of visible results while also considering content that benefits education and research.

The Central Library of Waseda University is visited by an average of more than 3,000 people daily and approximately 1 million people annually. Also, in addition to rare books that are designated as National Treasures and Important Cultural Assets, the Waseda University Library contains a variety of materials. For these visitors with a variety of different objectives, we would like to continue to actively hold exhibitions as one method of displaying collected library materials so that they are useful to current people, while also considering the future preservation of the materials. We hope that visitors will inadvertently stop into an exhibition room and make a new discovery that will aid them in their continued learning and research activities.
A summary of past exhibitions held by the library is available on the internet pages shown below. Also, these pages are continually updated with information regarding the schedules of future exhibitions. I hope that more people will pay a visit to our library. Furthermore, for people who don't have time to actually come to the library, we hope that they will use the Database of Japanese and Chinese Classics to enjoy a digital exhibition of their own choosing.

Waseda University Library Homepage (Exhibition)


Database of Japanese and Chinese Classics


Hideyuki Fujiwara
Manager, Special Collections (Waseda University Library)

Born in 1963. Completed a master's course at Waseda University's Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Specialty in Japanese history (ancient history and research of historical records). "Essays of Shunjo Ichishima" (Ichishima Shunjou Zuihitsushyuu) commentary and explanatory notes (Kress), "A Study about "Kakushi", a Way of Signature of Illiterate Person (Kakushi no Kenkyuu) ("Shikan" 142), "On'Ino-zu' collected by the Waseda University Library" (Waseda Daigaku Toshokan Shozou Inouzu [Oozu]) ("Bulletin of Waseda University Library" [Waseda Daigaku Toshokan Kiyou] 54), etc.