04/07/2013 07:11 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2013

The BMFA's Phantom Japan Collection and the Empty Swinging Door

A dark winter morning in Tokyo in the 1990s. It is a couple of years after my divorce and I am back in Roppongi, Tokyo's most international area, where my ex-husband and I used to live. I am searching for our favorite French bistro. I remember that it changed locations in our last year in Japan and I am trying to find the new building. Finally I discover it -- a gray concrete monument to Japan's go-go bubble era. I head inside and climb the stairs to the restaurant. But it is gone: only its name is left on a door that swings open in the chill breeze to reveal an empty room. The whole building is deserted, not a monument but a gravestone to Japan's economic miracle and my lost marriage.

Flash forward 10 years to another winter morning as I drive to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. I have moved back to Boston after 22 years of living in Austin, Texas. Many reasons brought me back, but one of the most powerful was my love of museums, especially the MFA and its stupendous East Asian collection. That collection literally changed my life. For much of my childhood I had hated art, thanks to my mother, an art historian, dragging me around too many European cathedrals and museums. By the time I was 13, my parents had resigned themselves to my future as a philistine. But a chance remark of mine about a pretty scroll hanging in a Harvard Square Chinese restaurant had given my mother hope and she decided to introduce me to the MFA's East Asia collection, one of the greatest in the world.

I remember stepping into the collection reluctantly, only to be swept away -- into the plunging mountain valleys of landscape scrolls, into the vivid urban vistas of woodblock prints, into the miniature worlds of netsuke carvings. How could I not have ended up a professor of Japanese studies? Visiting the MFA so many years later would be a chance to reconnect with my past and to rediscover the serenity and solace that the collection had offered me during my turbulent high school years.

But on this Boston winter day the museum offered me only absence. I looked and looked for the multiple rooms that had housed the collection but could never seem to find them, discovering only a couple of small exhibitions. Beginning to panic I asked the guard where the Japanese collection was and he looked at me in puzzlement. "It's right here," he said. I realized that I was back in Tokyo again, searching desperately for a part of my past that had been taken away.

And perhaps for the same reasons. In trying to understand what has happened to the East Asian collection, I have talked to other colleagues in my field and read two excellent articles in the Boston Globe by Sebastian Smee. Smee points out that many of the MFA's greatest Japanese masterpieces are currently on tour in Japan where they are drawing more than a million viewers. But the Boston public will not be seeing this exhibition.

How can this be? Mostly I hear economic stories. Apparently there simply isn't enough funding to maintain the exhibits so they are mainly in storage, (except when they are being promenaded throughout Japan). But are there deeper issues underneath? Perhaps the MFA with its increasingly contemporary orientation is no longer so interested in opening the doors to other, older cultures.
On January 26 of this year, the museum did reopen an installation from its Japan collection. I rushed over eagerly, to find basically a "Highlights of Japan" room. In one corner a samurai armor, in the middle a gorgeous landscape screen; on the walls a few woodblock prints. The pieces are superb, but they left me hungry for more and sadly nostalgic for my lost past. As I turned to go, however, I saw a little girl crowing excitedly to her mother about the magnificent dragon that dominated the entrance stairs to the East Asia galleries.

I thought back to a December visit to the Mario Testino blockbuster exhibition at the museum. The exhibit, called "In Your Face," was a tribute to the fashion photographer Mario Testino and his many enormous portraits of glamorous people. All around me, gigantic celebrity faces had leered down in a cavalcade of shiny vacuous images. I felt like I was drowning in a sea of oversaturated ink jet effluence. I longed for the subtle beauties of less strident cultures, but there seemed to be no escape.

The exhibition was crowded and there were children there as well but what were they learning? That the present is literally in your face and that the past is not important? I left the museum and drove home seeing only doors swinging emptily in front of me.

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