Stacks of catalogs for the "Romanticizing Japan" exhibit on a bench in the gallery.

Lutnick Library’s New Class-Curated Exhibit Challenges Western Modes of Viewing and Consuming Japanese Modern Art

Assistant Professor Erin Schoneveld’s seminar “Japanese Modernisms Across Media” overcame the obstacles of the COVID-19 pandemic to create Romanticizing Japan: Contextualizing Japan through the Western Gaze, which is on view through February 5, 2021.

The Rebecca and Rick White Gallery in Lutnick Library is now home to a new exhibit that explores Japanese tourist photography as seen through the Western gaze. Despite its now-tranquil and composed state, this new exhibit has quite a story behind it; the process of its curation and development by Erin Schoneveld’s Spring 2020 seminar class, “Japanese Modernism Across Media,” was sliced in half by the COVID-19 pandemic, driving all contributors of the project into a scramble to adapt—and they did just that. 

The new exhibit, Romanticizing Japan: Contextualizing Japan Through the Western Gaze, examines the introduction of photography to Japan and the revolutionary transformation of Japanese artistic production and exhibition practices during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Following a virtual opening reception on Oct. 27, it will be on display through February 5, 2021.

The student curators in Schoneveld’s seminar sought to answer a specific question about the Japanese tourist photographs they were studying: “Do the images accurately document life during late 19th-century Japan, or are they better suited to reveal the expectations and attitudes of the Western audience who consumed them?” In search of the answer, the students examined methods of artistic production, the contrast between tradition and modernity, and the portrayal of individual, cultural and national identity during Japan’s Meiji period (1868 to 1912). 

“Through the exhibition the students demonstrate that rather than portraying a strict representation of reality, Japanese tourist photography was a commercial venture that fed the demands of its primary consumers,” said Schoneveld, assistant professor of East Asian languages and cultures and director of the visual studies program. “This provides them [consumers] with a staged view that fit the West’s idealized image of a traditional Japan.” 

Ultimately, the students curated Japanese tourist photographs and ukiyo-ewoodblock prints from Haverford’s Quaker & Special Collections, which are now on display in the exhibit. 

For Claire Mitchell ‘21, a senior East Asian Languages and Cultures major from Bryn Mawr, research was the most captivating part of the process. 

“I think pictures can say a thousand words, but those words don’t always mean as much without context,” she said. “So, even while everyone in the class learned the basic historical backdrop to Japanese tourist photography, digging deeper into specific sites and people associated with those locations was fun and made each picture all the more unique.”

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Haverford’s campus, curating this exhibit was an advanced and involved task for the students to take on. 

“It was truly a collaborative endeavor in which the students spent many class hours examining and selecting the objects for exhibition, developing the exhibition theme and narrative, as well as researching the individual works they selected,” said Schoneveld. 

“During the semester, the students do their curatorial work,” said Sarah Horowitz, head of Quaker & Special Collections. “This involves me introducing students to the materials in question, and answering questions and providing guidance as they select their items, determine themes and groupings for the materials, and write exhibit text.”

Usually, after this process comes the faculty editing process along with design and printing done by Haverford’s conservator, Bruce Bumbarger.

Once Haverford moved to virtual instruction, Schoneveld’s class and everyone involved with the exhibition knew procedures in “Japanese Modernism Across Media”would have to change. The curatorial process, an object-based study of Japanese tourist photography and ukiyo-e prints, needed to continue over the course of the semester despite the change in structure.

“We continued to meet for class every week for 2.5 hours, and much of that time and schedule was determined by the students who worked in large and small groups on various facets of the exhibition,” Schoneveld said. “This included finalizing the exhibition title, theme and narrative, writing the exhibition text, layout and design, as well as communicating with the Library and Special Collections staff, including Sarah Horowitz and Bruce Bumbarger, who were incredibly supportive and helpful throughout.” 

Thanks to the students’ diligence in the first part of the semester, they were able to transition smoothly to an online format to continue the curatorial work. 

“When classes went online last spring, the students had already selected the items they were writing about, and had determined the four major themes of the exhibit,” Horowitz said. The four themes are nature, religion, women, and depictions of everyday life. “This was fortunate, as it meant that I could easily digitize all the materials they were working on, so that they could continue to see the materials.”

“I still believe what we were able to do before the pandemic was enough,” Mitchell said. “Because we had done most of that collaborative work already, rewriting our own essays for each piece was much easier.”

However, there were other elements of the exhibition’s conception that presented more significant challenges.

One of the elements was the spatial design of the exhibit, deciding how to arrange the physical space in the gallery, which was harder to do remotely. 

The other challenge dealt with the digital site for the exhibit. 

“Prior to the campus shutdown my students were also working with Mike Zarafonetis in digital scholarship to develop a digital site that was meant to complement and expand upon the content of the physical exhibition they were curating,” Schoneveld said. “However, this became much more difficult to accomplish after the campus shut down. In conversation with Mike Zarafonetis and the students we made a decision to focus the rest of the semester on curating the physical exhibition.”

Schoneveld decided to apply for a Teaching with Technology Grant in April, hoping to hire a student to take over the web-design process and build the exhibit’s digital site during the summer. 

“Professor Schoneveld gave me a lot of freedom in how I wanted to design the website and how I wanted to display all of the content,” said Springer. Since she was a part of Schoneveld’s class, she knew what the final goals were for the website and the exhibition.

“I was very familiar with the entire exhibition prior to starting the website,” she said. “Earlier in the semester, we discussed that we wanted our audience to be a range of different people like scholars, college students, and anyone else interested in Japanese Modernism.” 

She was able to organize the website with a clear objective, based on the work the class did to categorize certain objects and images for their ultimate display. It took about ten weeks for Springer to construct the site using BootStrap Studio, HTML, CSS, and GitHub. The website’s content includes exhibition objects, labels, essays, and Springer’s personal favorite, the various additional resources that expand the boundaries of the exhibition site.

Springer hopes that the site provides a way for exhibition visitors to learn more beyond the exhibit, and also that it allows folks off campus to engage with the work.  

“I had a lot of fun building the website and adding content,” Springer said. “This experience definitely brought out my creative side and got me interested in building websites.” (She has even continued on to help one of her friends build a website for her business.) 

Springer was not alone in her satisfaction with the exhibition and the value of its process. Despite the obstacles thrown in their way, many of the students felt that the exhibit was successful and meaningful, and they are thankful for the leadership of their professor.

“Without Professor Schoneveld’s kind and understanding nature, I think I can speak on behalf of our small class that it would have been far more difficult to finish the semester as well as we did,” said Mitchell.

The appreciation is mutual. 

“The students worked very hard to complicate and pressure Western historical and visual narratives regarding the development of Japanese modern art and nation building processes,” Schoneveld said. “Curating an exhibition of objects from the College’s Special Collections all the while doing it remotely from all over the world was challenging and I’m incredibly proud of them. We have some amazing students here in the BiCo.”