The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.

Practical Research on the Collection, Conservation, and Documentation of Ethnological Materials: An International joint Research Project Between the Russian Museum of Ethnography and the National Museum of Ethnology

Reserch period: April 2012-May 2015 / Core project: Anthropological Studies of Materiality Coordinator SASAKI Shiro

Reserch Theme List

Research Objectives

The objective of this project is to reconsider, in collaboration with museums and research institutions outside Japan, the functions and raison d’être of the ethnological museum in the 21st century.
Once the Kunstkammer ‘treasure house’ of royalty, the ethnological museum became, in the age of modern imperialism, a display of national prestige and an instrument of cultural unification for the nation-state. Then, in the era of internationalization, it was positioned as a device for understanding and educating the populace about alien cultures.  Today, following the revolution in information technology, the ethnological museum has increasingly become seen as a forum in which exhibitors and exhibited, researchers and those researched, exchange information, debate, and look for new ways to express ethnicity. Given this context, how should the museum function in both theoretical and practical terms in gathering, preserving, restoring, cataloguing, displaying, and using for educational and research purposes its collections (both artifacts and video and audio recordings)? These questions have not yet been sufficiently considered.  This research project reconsiders the theoretical foundations of ethnological museums and seeks to develop methods to put them into practice. Through comprehensive research and practical experience with ethnological materials, this project will enhance our performance both as a museum and as an Inter-University Research Institute Corporation, helping in this way to further increase our presence.

As a step toward achieving these objectives, we are collaborating with the Russian Museum of Ethnography in St. Petersburg, Russia, with which we signed an agreement on international collaborative research in fiscal 2010. In this collaborative research we focus on the most basic components of research on materiality, i.e., selection, conservation, cataloguing and describing artifacts, and reconsidering ways of discovering their value in a social and cultural context. These are, at the same time, the indispensable elements in museum operations.  The research conducted during this project is both basic as well as applied.

Why is this type of research essential now in our museum?
This type of basic research fundamentally requires continuous reconsideration. Both the concept of ethnicity and the social frameworks for it are fluid. As a result, the materials that ethnological museums should collect change over time. Existing concepts and frameworks for the conservation, management, description and use of ethnological materials must be constantly reconsidered. Most museums in Japan, however, have been deficient in this respect. It cannot be denied that even the National Museum of Ethnology has not done enough in this regard. So, in collaboration with the Russian Museum of Ethnography, with its own long-established tradition and achievements in organizing, managing and describing the materials in its collections, we begin the work of reassessment.
Our intention is not to have this project consist only of collaboration with the Russian Museum of Ethnography.  We will invite scholars from other institutions as well to participate in workshops and international symposia and will develop information exchanges with researchers and museums in Europe, America and other parts of Asia.  In this way we will contribute to both basic and applied research in the anthropology of materiality.


Research Content

We plan to address four important questions concerning ethnological materials: (1) collection, including video and audio recording; (2) conservation and restoration; (3) description and management; and (4) use of these materials in socially valuable as well as scholarly ways.

  1. Concerning collection of ethnological materials, we begin with the question “What are ethnological materials?”  The concept of ethnicity (or ethnos) remains ambiguous. Its meaning varies from language to language.  In recent years, its constructed and political character has been pointed out repeatedly.  Even so, it has continued to frame social and cultural categories and to influence social organization.  However, the impact of globalization has shaken its use and has increased the fluidity of both its conceptual and organizational framings. This makes it more important than ever to ask once again what are the “ethnological materials” that ethnological museums are to collect?  We also need to reassess both the methodological and ethical issues of collecting “ethnological materials”.
  2. Concerning conservation and restoration, we cooperate on a practical level with other museums to address the differences in methods of conservation and restoration required for ethnological materials, which are different in nature from officially designated cultural heritage. In the past, ethnological materials were rarely regarded as cultural assets. In most cases, ethnological materials were treated as items that could be replaced if damaged.  However, given the rapidity of cultural change and acculturation since the 20th century, the skills required to make artifacts and even the groups that produce them are in danger of disappearing.  What were once regarded simply as materials for ethnographic research have become, both for museums and for the groups that produced them, irreplaceable, precious treasures. Through discussion between Japanese and Russian experts, we will develop new methodologies and theoretical foundations for both the active use of ethnological materials and their conservation and, if damaged, restoration.
  3. On the description and management front, our focus will be on documentation, an area in which museums in Japan have been particularly deficient. The National Museum of Ethnology has been addressing this problem ever since its founding. Until now, however, the necessary organization of materials has been left to staff in charge of the collections, and researchers have not been directly involved. Deficiencies in both the quality and quantity of information about the artifacts displayed and stored in our museum are the result of inadequate research on the documentation of these materials. This is not a problem confined to this museum. It affects museums throughout Japan as we strive to develop new ways to operate and utilize our facilities. We would like to learn much from museums in Russia, which have a long tradition of careful description and archiving of information. Our aim is to establish more appropriate methods for describing, organizing and managing ethnological materials.
  4. Museums in both Japan and Russia have seen more active utilization of ethnological materials in recent years.  Through comparison of what has been done in the two countries, we are searching for new ways to utilize these materials.  There is, however, far too much to explore in one three-year period. This research should continue, with particular attention given to applications of its results.