Museums are created to make knowledge equally available to citizens

How do you envisage the role of museums? Many people see museums as places where valuable cultural properties are collected and stored carefully.

Certainly, one of the important tasks for museums is to clarify the value of cultural properties, store them to prevent them from being damaged, protect them and hand them down to future generations.

However, the fundamental role of museums is different.

Originally, facilities we know as museums of the present style were established in modern Europe.

Facilities that collect and store various articles and works have existed since ancient Greece. The main purposes of collections at these facilities until modern times were dedication to God and study by scholars.

On the other hand, the purpose of museums established in modern times is to share knowledge equally with citizens through exhibitions of collected cultural properties and works of art. In other words, museums can be positioned as facilities that play the role of public education.

Schools are the center of public education in our current society. For example, education for children is free of charge in most parts of the world. Also in Japan, anyone can receive education at primary and lower secondary schools as compulsory education.

However, education only at school or at school age is insufficient. In recent years, the idea of lifelong learning has made in-roads, and people have become able to learn in various ways. Nevertheless, many of these ways have become educational industries, and not all of them can be accessed easily by anyone.

With there actually not being many institutions supporting lifelong learning as public education, museums are main places that undertake this role.

In spite of this, unfortunately, it is hard to say that museums in Japan fully play the role. That’s because twists and turns in the history of museums affect them.

Museums established in modern Europe were introduced to Japan by Fukuzawa Yukichi. In his work Seiyo Jijo (“Affairs in Western Countries”), he describes museums as “facilities set up in order to spread knowledge.” Fukuzawa fully understood the public educational role of museums in Europe.

The Meiji government, for whom catching up with Western countries was imperative, paid attention to the role of museums and began establishing them around 1870, soon after the Meiji Restoration.

However, there was a tug-of-war between the then Ministry of Education and the then Grand Council of State (Later becoming the Ministry of the Interior) regarding the jurisdiction over museums, and in the end, two systems were established by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of the Interior.

In the process, with individual government offices’ expectations on functions, museums of the Ministry of Education emphasized the role of complementing school education. On the other hand, museums whose jurisdiction was transferred from the Ministry of the Interior to the Ministry of the Imperial Household came to position their own collections as Imperial property.

Consequently, some museums became somewhat unfamiliar, with some displaying school materials to suit their use by educators, while others established a considerably starchy style of viewing exhibits respectfully and quietly in low light since they were valuable Imperial property.

Affected by this background, museums in Japan went into a direction deviating from the original concept of public educational facilities, and it seems that this direction has not yet been eliminated.

Therefore, when Japanese tourists visit museums or art galleries in Western countries, they are surprised at their well-lit interiors or to see men and women of all ages visiting and touring them while talking happily and sharing their impressions.

Aiming at inclusive museums

However, museums in Japan are also changing.

Even if museums work hard to exhibit great works or significant fruits of work, that would be meaningless without visitors. In order to become places for learning that everyone can visit casually, museums need to shed their own image of being unfamiliar or starchy and make themselves familiar.

To this end, more and more museums have established hands-on sections or touchable exhibits and have improved interior lighting. These efforts have been well received and seem to have lowered the threshold to use museums.

Such practice of museums is of course significant and must continue to be promoted.

Considering this, however, we have to be aware that museums are facilities undertaking public education. Thus, we must not lose sight of museums’ true nature of being places open to anyone so that everyone can learn.

For example, it is important not only to make hands-on sections interesting but also to consider what should be learned or felt through the experience and to get it to be transmitted.

In addition, touching materials can sometimes transmit more information and a greater impression than looking at them. At the same time, touchable exhibits can be used by visually impaired persons. In that case, how can the actual conditions and appeal of untouchable materials be transmitted? If such things are not considered, museums will not be open to all.

Moreover, efforts to make museums enjoyable and familiar are important, while it is worrisome to make a commitment to attracting people for the purpose of tourism, giving little consideration to the effects of learning. That’s because the fun of museums results from informal learning.

Thinking of this carefully, in order to make museums open, we should establish a philosophy from a perspective of meeting the learning styles of various people and then consider methods of exhibition and activities.

In Japan, the idea of museums that can also be used by people with disabilities is called universal museums. This is a phrased coined in Japan, but it has been advocated since the end of the 1990s. This idea serves as a guide to opening museums to those who had difficulty using them, while a perspective of welcoming a wider variety of people, including those with disabilities, is essential for society in the future.

In this sense, I think that museums should aim at being inclusive museums. This is an idea for a museum based on social inclusion, aiming to develop a community inclusive of any persons tending to be alienated from society.

For such museums, it is important not to lose sight of museums’ true nature of being educational facilities open to anyone but to devise appropriate measures to respond to the diversity of people.

In order to realize this, the key point is to change the method of exhibition from the conventional visual type to the perceptual type.

Developing exhibitions that can be enjoyed by fully using our five senses, including seeing, touching, hearing, smelling, and tasting in some cases, are linked to creating inclusive museums, which could result in enhancing the effects of learning in museums for all people. At the same time, museums should be upgraded to active and enjoyable places.

There are a variety of encounters that stimulate interest in museums

There are about 5,700 museums in Japan, and the number of visitors per year is estimated to be nearly 300 million. From these data alone, though the number of visitors has decreased dramatically owing to the current COVID-19 crisis, Japan looks like a country with a lot of museums and people visiting them 2-3 times a year.

On the other hand, according to a questionnaire survey, about 50% of people have not used a museum in the past year. In other words, those who often visit museums and those who do not are clearly divided.

There are different reasons why the latter don’t visit museums. For those who consider museums to be starchy or difficult, museums must convey that they are enjoyable places that offer encounters with and impressions of a lot of things as well as learning from various things that stimulate interest.

At present, together with students of the Course for Prospective Museum Workers, I have been working on museum visiting lectures, mainly targeted at special-needs schools for intellectually disabled children.

Some intellectually disabled children do not like the low-lit interior of museums, and others do not want to visit museums since they were warned against letting out their voice. Therefore, not a few teachers or parents have difficulty in taking them to museums. Thus, the museum organizes visits to schools taking exhibits and other materials to get children to experience learning in museums.

For example, children can look at and touch earthenware, and experience unearthing earthenware from sand spread over a tray. Then children show their own expressions of surprise or pleasure.

A bedridden child in a stretcher-type wheelchair participated in this lecture. When I held the child’s hand and rubbed earthenware on the child’s hand, the homeroom teacher told me that the reaction was unusually strong. That means the child was excited by the experience of touching earthenware.

I believe it is important to develop museums to enable people to perceptually experience such encounters, impressions, and various things that stimulate interest. Fun and learning in museums should be brought about by such activities.

Although I described museums as places for public education, education and learning in museums are a little different from those at schools. Instead of being taught by teachers or textbooks, each person feels and enjoys freely with his/her own interest, which turns into his/her own learning.

After the COVID-19 crisis calms down, please visit museums, particularly if you are not already familiar with them. You don’t have to have prior knowledge. When you open the door with an open mind, you should find impressive encounters that stir your heart.

* The information contained herein is current as of May 2021.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

Information noted in the articles and videos, such as positions and affiliations, are current at the time of production.