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Editorial - Desperately Seeking Eastern

Jonathan Ashley-Smith
Head of Conservation

For the next year it will be hard to avoid seeing or hearing evidence of the innovations and traditions of Japanese culture. Japan 2001 is a year-long UK-wide series of exhibitions, demonstrations, lectures and festivals which celebrate the culture and lifestyle of Japan. The V&A will be participating in this celebration. The V&A was founded around the time that Japan ended its long period of seclusion from the outside world in the mid-nineteenth century and has been adding both historic and contemporary Japanese objects to its collections ever since.

In this edition of the Journal we look at some interactions of institutions in South Kensington with ideas and objects from areas to the east of Europe. Many years ago there was something called the 'Near' East, but the Americanisation of the British world-view has meant that even the nearest parts of the Levant are called the 'Middle' East. In contrast to this political de-orientation, I recently met someone from the British Council whose remit was the 'Far' East, which for him included Australia and New Zealand. This strict geographical interpretation of the world was initially at odds with my received notion of a strong relationship between distance east and degree of exoticism, the extreme of 'easterness' being the alien mysteries of Japanese culture.

A few moments reflection enabled me to re-orientate myself with a new interpretation of the expression "corners of the earth". In terms of environmental conservation problems (not to mention ease and cheapness of travel), Australia has more in common with Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia than it does with the UK despite historic political liaisons and current exchange of soap operas. Australia shares a time zone with Japan, which is more than can be said for the relationship between England and the bulk of it's new associates in Europe.

Conservators are fascinated by the organised complexity of Japanese metalwork, by the variable robustness of urushi lacquer objects and the extreme transience of some pigments in ukyeo-e woodblock prints. Paper conservation in this country has been transformed by the adoption of materials and techniques that derive from the Japanese tradition. However there is a distinct divide between the mid-set of UK and North American conservators and the concept of conservation in Japan. The Western passive non-interventive attitude at its extreme is about a reverence for an authentic and permanent arrangement of original molecules. Even at a purely scientific level, this concept of authenticity is difficult to maintain. The Eastern approach is much closer to the concept of sustainability, current in other fields of conservation such as preservation of biodiversity and the global environment.

It is impossible to preserve original arrangements of molecules but it is possible to preserve ideas, design, spirit, skill and relevance. Such an appraisal allows the radical restoration of museum objects such as the Hereford Screen (p.20) and is relevant to discussions of the conservation of contemporary installation where the exhibits have not been subject to historic natural selection. The document stemming from 1994 Conference on Authenticity held at Nara in Japan, promotes the idea of allowing local cultural interpretation of authenticity yet there is strong Western pressure for Japanese conservators to adopt a less interventive approach. The last large festival of Japanese Culture was nearly ten years ago. In an age of globalization it will be interesting to see whether distinguishable philosophies of conservation will be detectable in 2010.