When an Art Museum Faces the Controversial Past: Exploring the Father Damien Debate in the 1980s Japan

By Yayoi Mashimo.

Published by The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

This paper takes up a debate over the exhibition of a bronze sculpture of Father Damien in art museums in 1980s Japan, with a special focus on the responses from the museums. This hitherto obscure dispute offers an intriguing case study in the relationship between creative expression and its public exposure, especially when the exhibits evoke the agonizing experiences of marginalized peoples. This case also prompts a challenging question to the museum as a public institution: how does an art museum respond and make a decision when their exhibits bring pain to others.

Father Damien is universally admired for his service to patients of Hansen’s disease segregated in Moloka’i, Hawai’i, in the late nineteenth century. In 1975 a lifesize bronze sculpture of the Catholic monk was created by a proficient mid-career artist Funakoshi Yasutake (1912-2002), who was deeply moved by the monk’s self-sacrifice. The casts were subsequently purchased by three art museums to be added to their collections. In 1984, a group of Hansen’s disease survivors in Tokyo requested the museums to remove the work from the exhibition gallery, on the grounds that the realistically rendered, disease-wracked figure could re-generate negative stereotypes and fear-based discrimination over the disease, which has stigmatized both patients and their survivors for decades. Although the museums refrained from simply removing work from public view, they presented a range of responses. A long process of dialogue among the survivors, museums and the artist—even including a counter-protest from another survivor—ensued until the affair was settled in 1999.

The paper investigates the initial protest and subsequent discussions, scrutinizing how the museums responded to the survivors. A decade of trial-and-error is marked by a series of communications and miscommunications by the parties involved, and still has much to teach the current practitioners in art museums.

Keywords: Father Damien, Art Museum, Hansen’s Disease, Survivor, Interpretation

International Journal of the Inclusive Museum, Volume 2, Issue 4, pp.55-66. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.181MB).

Yayoi Mashimo

Adjunct Instructor, Art History, Japan Lutheran College/Tokyo Union Theological Seminary, Tokyo, Japan

Yayoi Mashimo received Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education at Graduate School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University, receiving the Fulbright grant for foreign students. Her undergraduate background of art history and long-term commitment to community education helped her to sustain interests in two research fields: visual art studies, focusing on contemporary and Pacific art, and art education in inclusive settings. While working at Evangelische Christian Akademie Tokyo as a program assistant, she teaches art history to undergraduate students at two colleges in Tokyo. She has also involved in a variety of grass-root international exchange projects in culture and disabilities, including the translation of the international news on disabilities for the Japan Federation for the Deaf and the Disabilities and Development listserv organized by International Development Center, Tokyo, and the subtitle translation of short films on disabilities and sexualities for the Kansai Queer Film Festival 2009.

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