The state of museums in Japan underwent a drastic change after the late 1960s. The number of museums has increased and, beyond this, the social awareness of museums has been enhanced dramatically. Recent years have seen a remarkable increase in the establishment of ‘local’ museums, built and operated by individual municipalities, with themes concentrating on local history and culture. This change has given rise to heated discussion on the role of museums in terms of museology, history, and folklore, especially in relation to the issue “museums and the local community”. Such debate is not restricted to Japan, but has been experienced in Europe and North America where there has also been considerable community based museum activity in recent years. Such debate has focused typically on problems like “museums and local identity”, and “the conservation of communal past and tradition”, and has raged both within and outside the museum service.
This paper reviews the theoretical development of museum studies in Japan and in Europe and North America, and discusses the perspectives taken towards regional museums. The two sections following the introduction explain the recent outlook of museums in Japan and the theoretical and practical developments concerning local museums. The ideas propounded by Toshiro ITO on local museology are looked at in particular. His proposals for ‘local-oriented-museums for local citizens’, where displays focus on local subject matter and aim at seeking closer local integration, are studied because of the great impact these ideas have had on the present practices in local museums. Although the intention has been for ‘better’ museums, this movement has not been without problems. For example, ‘localities’ and ‘local cultures’ are often assumed to be “natural” and “fixed”. The ideas of Benedict Anderson concerning the “imagined community” may prove useful here. Although museums depend on the beneficence of public authorities (with responsibility for an administrative region), museums offer the opportunity for awareness of a new communal identity. There exists plenty of scope for discussion about the role of museums as the process and medium through which notions of ‘region’, ‘self-image’, and ‘local culture’ are both created and brought to public awareness.
One approach within Anglophone museum studies has been to view the museum as a means to “make ourselves”. The fourth section of this paper reviews Anglophone museum studies from the viewpoint of representation of ‘others’ and of ‘selves’. First, ‘museums as a representation of others’ is explored. This approach arose from a reexamination of Western museum history and ethnography. The general thinking is that, in the past, Western anthropologists, in particular, could achieve no more than stereotype imagery of other cultures in museum exhibitions. It was, as Susan Pearce puts it, “the appropriation of culture”. Second, ‘museums as a representation of selves’ is considered. Today, it seems that more and more people, even nations, are making enquiries about the ownership of cultural assets held in museum collections. This issue presents problems such as “who is the rightful owner of material culture?” and “who should control the presentation of such culture?”. Responses vary from “restoring self-identity” to such as the indigenous minority peoples of North America to “an explanation of the creation of a wider national identity”. Third, the question of “how to express self?” is addressed. Whatever the context, museums attempt to conserve and even recreate past objects and situations.