Imperial Cllections Museum Shares Treasures

Yomiuri Shimbun photos
People view “Doshoku Sai-e” (Colorful Realm of Living Beings), hanging scrolls by Ito Jakuchu, on the opening day of The Museum of the Imperial Collections, Sannomaru Shozokan, on Nov. 3, 2023.

A museum that houses and exhibits art and crafts associated with the Imperial family has been rebuilt and opened in the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace located in central Tokyo. It is open to the public and is meant to demonstrate the cultural value of Japanese art to people from Japan and overseas.

The museum, named The Museum of the Imperial Collections, Sannomaru Shozokan, opened on Nov. 3, 2023. Its collections include culturally valuable works of art that appear in school textbooks.

In 1993, the Sannomaru Shozokan was opened to preserve and display the art and crafts donated to the nation by the Imperial family after the death of Emperor Showa.

The museum currently houses about 20,000 items, including national treasures such as the two-volume picture scrolls titled “Moko Shurai Ekotoba” (The Mongol Invasion) and one of painter Ito Jakuchu’s masterpieces called “Doshoku Sai-e” (Colorful Realm of Living Beings).

The museum was temporarily closed to be replaced with a new facility, which is still under construction. Part of the new facility has been completed and opened to the public.

The management of the museum was transferred from the Imperial Household Agency to the National Institutes for Cultural Heritage, which is an independent administrative agency under the Cultural Affairs Agency. The name of the museum was also changed to its current name. The museum will be fully opened in fiscal 2026, with an exhibition space eight times larger and a storage space four times larger than the old facility.

In recent years, digital archiving for objects held by museums has received increasing attention. The revised Museum Law that was enacted in 2022 requires museums to create and publish electronic and magnetic records of the materials they hold.

In fiscal 2021, the Sannomaru Shozokan digitized the catalogues of 84 exhibitions it held between November 1999 and September 2020, making the data available on its website. Few other museums have yet been able to do this in Japan. The museum aims to make its collections more widely known and to encourage other museums to borrow items from the collection.

Since October 2023, the museum has listed some of the national treasures and important cultural properties from its collections on the database of national museums called “ColBase: Integrated Collections Database of the National Institutes for Cultural Heritage, Japan.” Users of the database can easily get basic information of each work, such as its name, creator, year of creation, materials and size.

The Museum of the Imperial Collections has already begun to actively lend its items to other museums. There is a plan to hold four or more exhibitions per year in other museums to feature its collections during fiscal 2021-2025, while the new facility is under construction. Such exhibitions have been held in eleven locations thus far.

A visitor looks at the “Genji Monogatari-zu Byobu” (Scenes from The Tale of Genji), which is on loan from The Museum of the Imperial Collections at Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Art in October 2023.

Among them were the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Art and the National Crafts Museum, both in Kanazawa, which jointly held an exhibition of objects on loan from The Museum of the Imperial Collections last year, attracting about 50,000 visitors.

Hitomi Kitamura, senior researcher at the National Crafts Museum, said, “As digital technology continues to advance, the power of real articles will become more important. This exhibition was a valuable opportunity for visitors to actually see the precious items that have been handed down from generation to generation in the Imperial family.”

In response to the return of foreign tourists after the COVID-19 pandemic subsided, there are high expectations for The Museum of the Imperial Collections to play a central role in disseminating Japan’s cultural heritage and promoting cultural tourism.

The number of visitors to the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace rose to about 2.23 million in 2019, about four times as many as in 1993 when the Sannomaru Shozokan was opened. Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, foreign people accounted for about 40% of the park’s visitors, except in 2019, when the new Reiwa era began with the Emperor’s enthronement. The construction of the new museum facility has been financed by revenue from the international tourist tax (departure tax).

The museum currently has images of its collections available on Japan Search, a website that allows multilingual searching of materials held by libraries and museums nationwide. The museum is expected to make more efforts to share the value of its collections with people overseas.

Regarding the dissemination of information overseas, the museum’s director, Hiroyuki Shimatani, said, “It may be possible for our museum to exhibit art and crafts that have been handed down in foreign royal families as an exchange program. We need to be more active in the world.”

The museum is currently holding the exhibition “The Aesthetics of the Imperial Court — Beauty Passed Down through the Ages” through June 23 to celebrate its opening. The exhibition will display a total of about 180 items during its run, including superb works designated as national treasures.