• Behind the scenes of Lords of the Samurai: Legacy of a Daimyo Family

    by Cathy Mano, Registrar, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

    I had the very fortunate opportunity this year to work closely with Japanese art packers and shippers Nippon Express Co. Ltd. in conjunction with the Museum’s summer exhibition Lords of the Samurai: Legacy of a Daimyo Family (displayed at the museum June 12 – September 20, 2009). The Asian Art Museum borrowed over 160 artworks from the Hosokawa family collection housed in the Eisei Bunko Museum in Tokyo, the Kumamoto Castle and the Kumamoto Prefectural Museum in Kyushu. The artworks included full suits of armor, armament including sword blades, scabbards and tsuba (sword guards), textiles (formal attire and military banners), paintings in the form of folding screens and hanging scrolls, and lacquers and ceramics used in the tea ceremony. Seven artworks were designated Important Cultural Properties and two were designated Important Art Objects – both prestigious distinctions awarded by the Japanese government. Loans of these types of objects are extremely limited and some of the artworks had never traveled outside of Japan.

    As a hands-on museum registrar at a small institution, soft packing is a method we employ for artworks traveling short distances. We often reuse materials to save money and resources and recycling is a must. I already knew that Japan was a wrapping culture, but I didn’t realize that everyone from the corner merchant to the super specialized Japanese art handlers learn wrapping techniques very early and it is reinforced constantly. If you have ever purchased anything in Japan, small or large, gift or not, you know what I am referring to; beautiful papers, boxes, ties and bags – they don’t skimp on materials when it comes to packaging. The same holds true for packing artworks.

    Pillows made out of tissue stuffed with cotton (the kind that is found inside futons)- excellent padding for fragile 3-dimensional objects in boxes or stabilizing artwork on tables for examination and condition checking.

    Sasanuma-san – National Treasure of Nippon Express – has over 40 years of art handling, packing and installation experience. He is instructing a younger colleague in the proper wrapping technique of a 17th century lacquer saddle. Ties made out of the same tissue used for wrapping are used instead of tape. Masking tape is used very minimally and usually only on the outside of a box. Never close to the artwork. It may seem more labor intensive to make the little ties, but in the end, it made perfect sense. Tape should be used sparingly; it’s sticky and dangerous in proximity to fragile objects.

    Helmet from gusoku-type armor worn by Hosokawa Narishige (1759-1836), out of its box for condition checking, before being re-packed for dispersal back to its home in Kyushu. The cotton stuffed pillows are tied and formed into a custom support for the fragile metal and lacquer headgear.

    The Nippon Express packer in this photo is tying one of the inner boxes whose objects have been condition checked and repacked. A box with artwork inside has two ties. An empty box has only one tie in the middle of the box. There is more than one way to tie, depending on where you were trained. The Tokyo knot is different from the Kyoto knot. The art handlers were very proud to show the different methods of tying. The packing methods are also slightly different depending on what part of Japan you are from and who your teacher was.

    Due to the really fine job of organizing, wrapping, tying, stuffing and boxing, all of the artworks traveled safely, without incident, back to their homes. I learned so much by observing the intricate packing process which is passed on from senior to junior in the Japanese apprentice fashion. It was inspiring to watch individuals, such as Sasanuma-san, who have devoted their lives to the quiet, meditative world of art handling. It was a humbling and transformative experience which I will treasure.

    Cathy Mano
    Asian Art Museum
    San Francisco