Bringing Japan to Boston

Noh mask

Noh mask. circa 1750–1780. E.S. Morse Collection.
PM 80-21-60/22427.1
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Edward S. Morse Collection

May 20, 2004–April 30, 2005

Following the opening of Japan in 1854 and the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1876, Americans, especially New Englanders, played a seminal role in the transformation of Japan. For many of them, however, contact with Japan was also a personal quest. Many of New England's best-known intellectuals, from Herman Melville to Mabel Loomis Todd, were fascinated by Japan. These men and women became the principal interpreters of Japan to Americans.

Among them was Edward Sylvester Morse, a marine biologist, who first went to Japan in 1877 to study brachiopods, a type of marine animal that looks similar to clams or mollusks. There Morse discovered and excavated the Omori shell mounds and began his first collecting for the Peabody Museum at Harvard. Morse returned again to Japan in 1878–79 to organize a department of zoology for the University of Tokyo and to collect marine specimens. In his spare time, he traveled around the country, collecting pottery and other ethnographic materials, especially from the Ainu, one of Japan's indigenous peoples. In addition to his zoological work, Morse was an expert on Japanese pottery, the tea ceremony, the Ainu, and noh theater. He shared his vast knowledge of Japan with Bostonians in numerous public lectures, particularly the 1881 Lowell lectures on collecting Japanese art and artifacts.

Morse went on to become the director of the Peabody Academy of Science (now the Peabody Essex Museum) and to assist the Museum of Fine Arts to build a very fine Japanese collections.

The Bringing Japan to Boston exhibit focuses on the small but choice items collected by Morse specifically for Harvard's Peabody Museum between 1877-79. Objects featured include pottery from the Heian through Edo periods, hats, shoes, Ainu prayer sticks, noh masks, and architectural models.

Curated by Susan Haskell.

For more items in our collection, click here.

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