I am working as a history resercher at National Museum of Japanese History, usually called REKIHAKU, means "history museum".
Museum Education was not always very widespread in Japan. But in recent years, as in many other countries, the significance of museum education has come to be strongly appreciated in view of the arrival of an era of lifelong learning and in connection with school education.
At our museum, we have spent the past several years studying museum education and experimenting with a variety of programs. Today, from among these experiments, I would like to focus on an example in which I was closely involved, namely, the creation and use of exhibit worksheets.
But first let me give you a brief overview of the museum itself.
The museum is located in the suburbs of Tokyo near the Narita airport in a town called Sakura. It sits on the grounds of the 17th century castle ruin, but the museum exhibitions do not deal specifically with the castle or the region. The museum's purpose is to study Japan's entire history and culture, and to gather and exhibit related materials. Institutionally, the museum is part of national university and comprises about fifty researchers. There are no museum educators, however, their function is performed by willing researchers and some part-time staff.
The museum opened around twenty years ago in 1983 and is the only nationally sponsored history museum. It is thus a distinguishing feature of the museum that it was created by the nation to treat the nation's history.
The museum's permanent exhibitions trace Japan's history and folk culture from pre-historic and ancient times through the Modern period. An exhibition on inter and post World War Two history is currently under development
The content of the exhibitions is a kind of social history. The history of the state and political power is not directly treated. On principle, the museum does not display portraits of historical figures, so neither are the emperor and shogun present.
There are visitors who do not care for this style of exhibition, but we at the museum are firmly committed to these principles. The political history of the state can only be evaluated from a political perspective; since these perspectives vary, any such exhibition will impose a single perspective on visitors.
In its past, Japan has a bitter history of educating its people under a monolithic emperor-centered view of history and of using that historical worldview to rationalize its invasions of other Asian nations. Postwar historical research and history education are predicated on regret of this history, which is why it is inconceivable that a national museum in Japan treat the nation's political history.
The belief that no single perspective of history should be enforced, that historical understanding should be free and diverse, is a belief which also has significant implications for education at museums.
Let me now show you what some of the actual exhibitions are like. What methods of exhibition can be used to narrate something abstract like "the history of a nation"? Our museum relies on a combination of historical materials, scale models, and environmental reconstructions. That is, as a means to represent a given theme we wish to communicate, we begin with a relatively large model. Around this we gather thematically related materials, both real objects and replicas, which together create an exhibit that is symbolical.
< Images >
1. This is Jomon pottery from 5000 years ago. The model, based on an archaeological site, recreates the hunter-gatherer society of the Jomon period.
2. This is a rice storehouse from 2000 years ago, which is used to symbolize the adoption of agriculture from the Asian continent.
3. This is an 8th century gate from the imperial capital which was influenced by Chinese civilization. Materials are introduced here that relate to urban lifestyles in the capital.
4. In Kyoto of the 10th century, Japan's distinctive classical culture was crafted by the aristocracy.
5. The samurai warrior class appears in the medieval period. This exhibit suggests their everyday lifestyle.
6. In the 17th century the samurai made present-day Tokyo their capital. Samurai attire is used to symbolize "samurai society."
7. This is a symbol of a traditional agricultural village.
8. Giant-sized figures like this one were placed at the entrance to a village. It also serves as a symbol of agricultural villages.
9. A traditional school and a school influenced by the West in the 19th century.
10. Tokyo's lower side in the early 20th century. This is a relatively new exhibition that recreates the city in life-size.
As this shows, our process is to select themes around which we build symbolic exhibits that together try to convey Japanese history and culture as a whole. I believe that this method of exhibition, which does not directly treat politics and political power, is one effective way of exhibiting the history of a nation in its entirety.
But from the perspective of educational programs, this method raises a number of issues.
Firstly, because the exhibitions are created to symbolize a theme, the intention of the exhibition cannot be understood if the meaning of the symbolism is not understood.
Secondly, despite efforts not to impose a particular historical worldview, an exhibition's themes are nonetheless determined and constructed based on a creator's intentions, such that it is in fact difficult for visitors to shape an understanding of their own, based on the exhibit.
As shown in the last of the slides, life-size reconstructions of historical scenes help to make exhibits easier to understand. On the other hand, the greater the degree of such reconstructions, the greater is the risk that such reconstructions become an already constructed understanding of history.
As this suggests, the issue of free perspectives on history and visitor creativity and the issue of understanding a curator's intentions are fundamental issues for museum exhibition.
We can schematize what I am saying as follows:
Generally speaking, exhibits are understood as a medium of communication between an exhibitor and visitor.
Curator → Exhibition (Image) → Audience
For most kinds of exhibition, the exhibit materials themselves typically have great appeal, such that visitors can enjoy the materials as such without understanding the curator's intentions.
In the case of history exhibits as seen above, it is not always the case that the materials themselves have great appeal and instead serve along with models and reconstructions to communicate some theme.
Without some theme, without some intention on the part of the exhibitor, there can be no exhibition; and yet visitors are meant to freely shape their own understanding of history, which means that it is not simply a matter of communicating intended meanings.
This is a dilemma with which we continue to struggle, but it also, I think, indicates a major reason-to-be for education and other interventions in support of learning.
In other words, by combining the "hardware" of the exhibit with the "software" of educational programs, it becomes possible to use the exhibit in new and different ways. An exhibit can be used not only as a means of understanding its creators' intentions but also as a resource for creating an understanding of history for oneself.
In the case of historical exhibition, an exhibit is a particular image of history; as with any genre of exhibition, it is a product of a certain subjective perspective.
Because any exhibit is a particular image that is fashioned by the exhibit's creators, visitors can be freed of this image only by understanding and experiencing the process through which it was created. Only by adopting the same perspective as curators does, it become possible for visitors to objectify the exhibit.
Curator → Exhibition (Image)
Not only, then, should attention be paid to a visitor$B!G(Js learning process, but more attention should be given to the process by which curators create exhibits, that is, the process by which curators encode meanings in order to create an image we call the exhibit. In simplest terms, it is the process of creating an image from historical materials. Because an image of history is not fantasy, but rather based on the knowledge gained from materials.
Thus, for visitors themselves to create an image of history, requires that they understand the materials. It is a matter of carefully examining and understanding materials and, from this, making discoveries. It is furthermore a matter of communicating their understanding to other people. We consider it a fundamental aim of our programs to encourage visitors in these kinds of activity.
On the one hand, abstract and symbolic exhibitions of history are not always easy to understand. But on the other, shaping an image of history from materials is an idea that is easily understood. With the right educational support, creative work becomes easier for visitors.
For these many reasons we continue to develop programs that make use of the galleries of our permanent exhibitions. I would now like to turn to one of these programs, one which makes use of worksheets developed for visiting families.
In terms of content, the worksheets ask visitors to locate a material, examine it, and answer related questions. It is a simple and familiar formula involving four steps: finding, observing, thinking, and recording.
Let me now offer a concrete example.
This is a kind of tombstone called in Japanese "itabi". This particular form occurs widely in eastern Japan during the early medieval period. The cultures of eastern and western Japan are very different, and this exhibition uses the itabi to symbolize the samurai warrior class in eastern Japan, in contrast to the Kyoto court in the west.
But this is only one of the meanings inherent to the artifact. Like any material, it holds multiple meanings. With careful observation, it becomes possible to read many different kinds of historical information from the material, in addition to the one aspect that is staged by the exhibit's scenario.
For instance, although the exhibit label does not say, a very large letter is carved into the surface of the tombstone. The letter is a form of Sanskrit from ancient India and record the name of the Buddhist deity Amida.
The worksheet calls attention to this letter. Asks to complete the letter, and asks to which country the letter belongs. Since the letter is neither "kanji" (Chinese character) nor Korean Hangul , it is relatively easy to guess from among the choices that the answer is India.
The worksheet thus makes it possible to learn that Buddhism originated in India and passed through China and Korea to reach Japan, in other words, to study religious history and the history of international exchanges.
There is also a detailed inscription on the tombstone. It tells us about the circumstances of the tombstone's creation. It says that the tomb is that of a married couple; that the husband, a warrior, died thirty-seven years earlier; that his widowed wife had supported the family since his death; and that their children built this tombstones for the sake of their parents. The story is very interesting in its own right, but it also makes clear that women at the time were of very high standing and equal to their husbands.
It would also be possible to consider issues related to stone-working and transportation technology as well as design-related issues. From this one artifact, there are numerous meanings to be had.
I call this process of finding and illuminating the various meanings inherent in a material, "opening the meanings of the object." It is a process of showing people how to find various meanings besides those used in the exhibit's scenario and it contributes, I believe, to helping visitors themselves to create an image of history.
The worksheet has two parts, a question sheet for children and an answer and explanation sheet for adults. We call this program the "Rekihaku Family Quiz." Shaped by the use of worksheets at the Victoria and Albert Museum in England, we have made use of the custom of having parents serve as their children's instructors on family visits. It benefits both parents and children who can learn together as they study new aspects of materials. And it enables a deeper, more detailed explanation than would be possible with only worksheets for children.
Now I'd like to share the outcomes of the programs we implemented.
We initially began with worksheets for elementary school children.
When we began, we had no information to predict what ages would actually use the worksheets. In addition to elementary school children, our surveys revealed that middle school children (ages twelve to fifteen) and pre-school children (under six) were also making extensive use of the worksheets. We also learned that there was significant demand for age-specific worksheets, which we next implemented.
Here is an example of a worksheet for young children. Children look for and make drawings of animals and persons in the exhibits.
This graph shows which age groups chose which kinds of worksheet. There was a clear tendency for children under age eight or nine to choose the easier worksheets, while those, above that age preferred more intellectual, harder worksheets.
There were, I would add, younger children who chose the harder worksheets and used them effectively.
Cross-tabulation showed that these younger children (ages six to eight) were as satisfied as other age groups, indeed more satisfied. This suggests that adequate help from a parent, combined with a child's desire, makes it possible for some children to use relatively high-level worksheets.
This help is not necessarily limited to parents. Children should also be able to use higher-level worksheets with the help of a staff member in the galleries.
We also got interesting results regarding the earliest ages from which children can use worksheets. Four-year-olds had no problems. With the right assistance and depending on individual abilities, some three-year-olds could use them. Two-year-olds are apparently still too young.
This is a picture I found from feedback forms. It was probably drawn by the participating child's elder sister or cousin. It is written, "Me had fun. Even four-year-old I understood well." But the two-year-old said only "buu."
We also found that children were not the only ones who wanted worksheets. Our surveys showed a large number of adults who also wanted to use them.
For elementary school children we had created worksheets that required no historical knowledge so as to avoid lack of knowledge as a barrier to participation. For people already with historical knowledge, however, their desire was to associate their knowledge with the exhibit or to test their knowledge.
Thus, we created worksheet to be used by people ranging from older elementary school children who were beginning to study history at school, to adults.
As you can see with this example, we created hardest worksheet that asked questions about written materials, something we had avoided with the worksheets for younger children.
From participant surveys it is clear that this type of worksheets were used by middle school and elementary school children over age eleven, that is, by children beginning to study history. But graph reveals another peak at around forty years of age, indicating that adults were also using them a lot.
In all, then, the three kinds of worksheet that we have developed are used by a wide range of ages, from young children to adults.
In a separate program, one directed primarily at school groups, we use worksheets alongside monocular, which students use to look at detailed exhibit materials, such as scale models, fine paintings. We believe it encourages students to study those aspects of a material that interest them individually.
We also conducted a sketch workshop in which children drew pictures of materials they themselves selected. After they finished their drawings, which they were also asked to name, the children were brought together in a group and reported individually on what they drew. Curators and art teachers offered comments in response.
In this way, children become active observers of an exhibit and give names to their observations as part of the process of explaining them to others. As my colleague KURUSHIMA Hiroshi likes to stress, this act of naming is an important one. By explaining the artifact to other people, the child is encouraged to communicate his or her understanding. This helps to make the child's understanding of the artifact more complete.
As an extension of the above, we also created a program titled "My Rekihaku Guidebook." Although the cover resembles that of the actual museum guidebook, this book contains worksheets and is almost entirely blank. Pursuing a topic of their own choosing, children select a number of materials from the museum's exhibitions. They sketch the materials, give each drawing a name, and write an explanation.
To the extent that participants must choose their topics and materials freely, must create an image of history from their understanding of the materials, and must communicate this understanding to other people, it is a relatively high-level program.
The point of all of the programs I have discussed is that visitors themselves create an image of history out of the exhibition's materials. Concretely, this means studying the material closely and understanding its meanings. Moreover, by choosing one's own materials and giving explanations about them, participants are training themselves to study and imagine history based on evidence.
I believe that a museum's educational role can be understood as a place of training, a training center, where visitors acquire skills to learn independently. On this view, museum exhibits are both a resource for such training and, for visitors who have acquired such skills, a source of research materials.
These skills, once acquired, are not limited to the museum but rather extend beyond museum. In this sense it is better to speak of a museum not as a place where people study what is on the inside, but rather as an entrance to the worlds outside the museum. It is a visitor's center for people investigating the various worlds of an ever expanding historical universe.
For the curators who produce exhibitions, this means that their role is not one of "teaching" but one of inviting visitors to "think together" with curators from the perspective of curators. Among recent Japanese museum professionals, it is in fact now becoming common to say that museums do not teach answers but rather provide places and encouragements for "thinking together." In my view, for a history museum like ours, premised on a diversity of images of history, there is no way for the museum to succeed unless it adopts this kind of spirit.
As my discussion has reflected, our efforts at the museum have focused until now on how to use existing exhibits. At the moment, however, we are also in the process of redesigning our galleries. To the extent that we prove, able to design these new exhibitions specifically as resources for learning, we can expect them to be even more effective. I hope that some day in the future I will have the opportunity to address you again about these upcoming changes. Thank you. Kamsa-hamnida.
( Images are omitted. You can see the scenes of exhibitions in the website of our museum www.rekihaku.ac.jp, and about our educational activities, you can see the annual report "Rekihaku ni ikouyo - The Rekihaku Educational Initiative" which you can download from the website < Japanese page of education >. )
1956 Born Yokohama City, Japan
Doctor, Kyoto University, Department of Literature (Japanese History)
Professor, National Museum of Japanese History, Department of History
Professor, Graduate University for Advanced Studies (Sokendai), Department of Japanese History
Fields of Expertise
Medieval and Early Modern Japanese History
Related Publications (All in Japanese)
"Museums and Artifact Replicas". Bulletin of the National Museum of Japanese History 50 (1992).
"At the Museums in U.K.: From the Scenes of Museum Education" .Rekihaku Booklet 16 (2000).
"Worksheet-based Education Programs for Families: Results from the "Rekihaku Family Quizzes" Program". Bulletin of the National Museum of Japanese History 108 (2003).
"Constructing History Exhibitions: Lessons from the Permanent Exhibitions at Rekihaku". In National Museum of Japanese History, ed.,The Nature of History Exhibitions. UM Promotion, 2003.