Empty Museums: Transculturation and the Development of Public Art Museums in Japan

Morishita, Masaaki (2003). Empty Museums: Transculturation and the Development of Public Art Museums in Japan. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000e822


This thesis conceptualises the development of public art museums in modern Japan as a process of "transculturation". The introduction of the public art museum - as an institution and concept originated in the modern West - into early-twentieth-century Japan and its subsequent development have been commonly criticised by Japanese museologists in the context of theories of "westernisation". Accordingly the characteristics of the Japanese institutions have often been dismissed as evidence of their incompetence and their failure and to properly realise the Western models. My research, in contrast, examines the processes of transculturation through which the distinctive features of Japanese art museums were positively developed in relation to the localised conditions specific to the "art fields" of Tokyo and other provincial cities. The Western institution and concept of the public art museum were actively and strategically translated into distinctive Japanese forms in the course of their adaptation to the specific sociocultural environment of Japan. In my analysis, I focus on one particular characteristic of the Japanese institutions - their "emptiness" as defined by their lack of collections, permanent displays, and initially curators. Two particular agents in the Japanese art field are highlighted in the development of these "empty museums"; one is the "art group" associated with the iemoto system which had long structured a wide range of traditional cultural practices in Japan and the other is the "curator" whose specialist concerns were related to the Western curatorial practices based on art history. The practices of both agents were formed through the interactions between Western, Japanese, and more regionally/periodically specific cultural elements. Moreover, these agents themselves incessantly conflicted and negotiated with each other and the localised contingencies. It was these interactive relations that helped to shape the configurations of the regional art fields and the curatorial practices of the public art museums in those regions.

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