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A Visit to Mokuhankan - Part Four

Posted by Dave Bull at 8:13 AM, November 15, 2010 [Permalink]

This thread about Mokuhankan is continued from Part Three, and began here.

Dave: We're now in the building next door actually. A couple of years ago we finally got the resources to go ahead with this project, and were lucky that at about the same time, the space next door became available. It also has its own separate entrance from the street, as you probably noticed when you arrived here this morning.

Dave and his guest are now in the entrance lobby of the Mokuhankan Gallery/Museum. For the benefit of English-language readers, a few words about the name Mokuhankan might be in order.

Han (plank, block) can be combined with Ga (picture, image) to form the compound Hanga, meaning 'print'. When prefaced with the character for 'wood', which can be pronounced Moku, we get Moku Hanga (woodblock print, woodblock printing).

The character Kan, which has its roots in describing castle buildings, means 'hall' by itself, but is usually seen in such combinations as Toshokan (Hall of Books ... or Library), and Bijutsukan (Hall of Arts ... or Art Museum). So our creation of the new combination Mokuhankan implies that this building is 'the' place for woodblock prints. As it indeed is!

Dave goes up to the counter, speaks to the woman there for a moment, and is given a ticket and a pamphlet, which he passes to the guest.

Dave: Here's your entrance ticket and a kind of 'guide' pamphlet. On the house! (grins ...)

Guest: Thank you!

They pass through the entrance - touching their tickets to the sensor pad on the gate - and move into the facility itself.

Dave: We've got three major areas to see here; let's take the usual 'route' through, starting with the Mokuhankan Collection.

The room they now move into is quite different from the bright and airy shop and workroom they saw earlier. This area is much more dimly lit, as one would expect in a museum displaying old prints. In a bit of a change from typical museum displays, the prints are not framed and hung on the walls, but are placed on slanted 'viewing stands' with soft lighting angled down onto them - quite similar to what we saw back in the shop. They are protected by clear glass, but as there are no open lights on the ceiling, no reflections bother the viewers, and the prints are perfectly clear.

Dave: OK, I'm not going to take you by the hand and guide you around the whole place; you can come back and spend time later if you wish. Just let me give you an overview of what we have here. Almost none of the prints in this room (or in our collection, actually), are the rare and expensive kind that you see in many museums - you know, old original Utamaros, or other works like that. Those kind of prints are beyond our resources to obtain, and honestly speaking, pretty much all the good stuff was long ago scooped into the major collections, and there really isn't much available any more.

We focus on prints from the Meiji era up to the present, particularly genres of prints that have been ignored up to now. We have a very nice collection of kuchi-e - the book and magazine frontispieces, a strong group of early 20th century decorative books and prints, any number of prints from the smaller genres - senshafuda, pochi bukuro, etc., and we have a collection of early Showa ukiyo-e reproductions that always surprises people, who simply can't believe the quality of the work they contain.

The current exhibition is of two sets of seasonal views published by the Meiji-era print house Daikoku-ya, a name I am sure you have never heard before, but after an hour of browsing these astonishing images, I think you will probably never forget!

Our focus is on the woodblock print as a beautiful object, not on the print as an artifact produced by somebody with a big name. A wonderful 'side effect' of that philosophy is that we don't do our shopping at Sotheby's, but in the bookshops and dealer's auctions instead! We are finding recently though, that our own efforts to publicize prints like this is resulting in higher prices out there in the market; perhaps we should 'keep quiet' and keep it all to ourselves!

A couple of people in the room - recognizing Dave - come over to speak to him about the prints on display, and he spends the next few minutes giving them and his guest a 'mini guided tour' of the exhibits. He then excuses himself from them, and he and his guest move out and into the next area.

Dave: It's like that every time I come in here - it is a lot of fun showing these things to people! And something else that is quite gratifying is that we get a lot of repeat visitors; we put up a new exhibition in that room once every three months, announcing it of course to all our 'members', and many of them don't miss a single one!

And that reminds me, please take a look at the 'small print' on your entrance ticket. Look at the part where it says 'Valid until: ...'

Guest: (reads aloud) Valid until ... (reads a date one year in the future). What? This is a one year ticket?

Dave: It's just a 'normal' entrance ticket, but yes, it is valid for one year. We want to encourage people to come back and see some more of the exhibitions. There may be some slight loss of revenue by letting them in 'free' next time, but we're just happy to have them back!

Guest: But what if they were to pass this on to a friend? There's no name or anything printed on it ...

Dave: Suits me fine! Spread the word! The more people who learn about how interesting this place is, the better! And as it happens, people rarely come alone anyway, so there will likely be somebody purchasing a ticket during each visit. And of course they are all potential customers of the shop ...

They move into the next display area, which is quite similar to the first room: soft lighting, and prints on display in similar showcases. Dave doesn't explain anything to his guest, but simply gestures him forward into the room. The guest strolls around for a minute or two, and then comes back to Dave.

Guest: OK, wait a minute. You're not joking about this, are you?

Dave: (laughs) Of course not! What better way could there be to 'make the point'?

Guest: But the prints on display in this room are just items from over in your shop - even though they are all beautifully arranged, and have explanatory panels with them, they all look brand new! This is supposed to be a museum!

Dave: Well actually, it's a Gallery/Museum, but the particular definition is irrelevant. And what do you mean by using the word 'just'? Aren't they beautiful? (He is of course laughing at his guest ...)

Guest: I didn't mean to imply anything negative; I guess I'm used to thinking of things in museum displays as being 'old'; it's a bit of a surprise to see brand new prints here. But yes, I do see your point - that there is no real difference between the items in that previous exhibition room and the prints in your shop. They are indeed, all beautiful enough to be 'museum pieces'.

Dave: Indeed! And this room is also important to our young craftsmen. When they see prints that they themselves made, become part of a beautiful exhibition like this, side-by-side with that wonderful Meiji work, I think it has a very good influence on the way that they see themselves, and the value of their work.

Guest: Yes, I can imagine it must.

Dave: But let's move through to the last of the three major parts of this place - the 'Library'. This one I'm particularly proud of, and people are very much enjoying it.

They enter the Library, which looks like ... a library. (And does it need to be mentioned ... greenery everywhere!) One wall is covered with bookshelves, in front of which are tables and comfortable chairs where the books can be studied. But it is the other side of the room to which Dave steers his guest, to a row of what at first glance seem to be a half-dozen study carrels. Each one has two chairs, and the two of them take their places at one of the 'stations'. A young woman on the other side comes towards them, but Dave asks her to wait a minute, and she returns to her desk.

Dave: Some years back, when the iPad first came out, I was so excited! I had been waiting for quite some time for technology like that to arrive, and when it finally became available, knew that I had to make use of it here.

Guest: I see; so this is going to be a 'virtual library'? We will be looking at prints on the screen here?

Dave: Yes and no. Of course, our complete collection is available for such on screen viewing, and in fact, it's all on the internet too, so for that part of it, you don't need to come down here, you can view it all at home. But anyway, go ahead and use the app on the iPad to browse a bit - it's all pretty self-explanatory.

As Dave mentioned, there is an iPad built-in to the desk unit. The guest begins using it, tapping the screen now and then as he begins browsing through the menu selections available. He ends up with one of the prints from the collection on the screen, where it is accompanied by some text explanation. Dave points out a 'button' on the screen: 'See the real print'. The guest takes the hint and presses it. A chime sounds somewhere, and the girl we met a moment ago comes to their station, asks the guest to wait just a moment, and then moves to the storage cabinets that line the wall behind her.

She finds the particular item, and brings it back to them. Opening the package to expose a print in its mat, she slides it under the clear glass surface of the desk at which they sit, then flips a switch to turn on the illumination. The print looks fantastic under the proper lighting, and they can see every tiny detail.

Dave: There you have it - the real print itself, carefully protected from potential damage, but clearly visible, and the iPad with all the information about it. If you have questions, the young lady would be glad to help you, and of course she is there ready to bring you whatever other items from the collection you would like to see. You are welcome to sit here all day if you choose. Personal access to museum quality prints, right there under your nose. It just doesn't get any better than this!

Guest: I can ask for anything in the collection, and she will just bring it to me?

Dave: Well, anything that will fit in the viewing window. The station at the end of the row down there has a special large window; you will need to use that one for some of the larger items we own. And for things like books, for which this system is not practical, you will be asked to view the item at the table next to her desk, and 'normal' museum rules apply: no briefcase, bags, pens, etc. We do have a responsibility to protect ourselves and these items, but as much as possible we want to have 'open access' to the collection.

Any museum-type institution has two major functions, and these are sometimes in conflict. We have to preserve and protect the items in our care, and yet we have to make them available for research and display. Most institutions here in Japan emphasize the former over the latter, and it is extremely difficult for a person without the proper 'academic credentials' to get access to the materials. I can understand this, but have personally found it extremely frustrating sometimes. So when it came time to formulate the philosophy on which our own organization would operate, I tried - as far as practically possible - to go the other way.

This part of our library had its genesis in the eBook materials I began to create some years ago - the ones in the David's Choice collection. They were very well received by viewers, and I found myself - whenever people were visiting my home after having read one of those books - pulling out the same prints to show them. At their request, I mean. Having seen the digital renditions, they really had a strong desire to see the real thing. And this is why we aren't afraid to have our entire stock of prints from the shop up on the internet in high resolution. Perhaps you've noticed what it says somewhere on the site: "The digital versions are free. Help yourself to as many as you can carry! For the analog versions, we look forward to receiving your order ..."

But I see that we are now cutting it very fine with our schedule. When we arranged this visit today, I asked that you keep the lunch hour open; have you ... (he lets the sentence hang ...)

Guest: I did as you asked, and have no plans. But I don't want to impose on your hospitality any further ...

Dave: Please don't worry; we're not done yet! It's just that the next stop on our little 'tour' here will be ... But again, rather than have me try to explain, let's just go see!

(Part four of five. The series concludes in part five.)

[Comments for any of the five parts can be left back on the page for Part One]

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