About Nara National Museum

Greetings

The Nara National Museum is located in a corner of Nara Park surrounded by the Tōdai-ji Temple, the Kōfuku-ji Temple, and the Kasuga Taisha Shrine. With the cooperation of temples, shrines, and other cultural properties’ owners, we conserve and study cultural properties, including artworks and archeological artifacts related to Buddhist art. We also hold exhibitions to encourage the understanding of the quality of and fascination with Buddhist art cultivated through deep faith in Buddhism, as well as the profound culture and historical background of Buddhist art.
Through this website, we hope to provide a variety of information about the museum. We also hope that this website provides an opportunity for visitors to express their interest in our activities and cultural properties. If you are interested, you are welcome to visit the museum and directly experience the quality and beauty of our cultural properties. You can always access up-to-date information on exhibitions and other events through this website. It may be helpful to check the latest information before you visit the museum.

Nobuyuki Matsumoto
Director, Nara National Museum

History

The founding of the first museum in Japan was originally motivated by the 1867 Paris Expo in France. In 1871, the Natural History Bureau was founded under the Ministry of Education, and the Yushima Seidō (Yushima Confucius Temple) was converted to a museum. This was the first step in the history of Nara National Museum. In Nara, the Nara Hakubutsu Kaisha (Nara Natural History Company) was founded as a part-public/part-private organization in 1874, and the company exhibited valuable temple treasures in the cloister of the Big Buddha Hall of Tōdai-ji Temple, including the treasures of Shōsōin (Imperial Storehouse). This expo continued until 1890, a time when many cultural properties risked being damaged or lost because of the Haibutsu Kishaku Movement after the Meiji Restoration (a movement to abolish Buddhism), but this expo motivated the public to recognize these artworks as valuable cultural assets.
Above all, the Haibutsu Kishaku Movement was very serious in Nara. In the face of the increasing public interest in the conservation of cultural properties, the government established the Ad-hoc National Treasure Research Bureau in the Imperial Household Agency, brought museums under the jurisdiction of the Agency in 1886, and conducted research with cultural properties throughout the nation in 1888. In 1889, the government founded the Imperial Nara Museum together with the Imperial Tokyo Museum and the Imperial Kyoto Museum. The Imperial Nara Museum opened in April 1895 and was later renamed the Nara Imperial Household Museum during the regulation reform of governmental organizations in 1900, when the Imperial Household Agency was renaming imperial museums as imperial household museums.
The purpose of founding a national museum in Nara was to conserve a large collection of masterpiece artworks and treasures owned by local temples and shrines, and also to be open to the public so they could discover the works’ value and cooperate in conservation activities. In the Shōwa Era, the collection donated from temples and shrines gradually increased and went beyond the storehouse’s capacity (the current Nara Buddhist Sculpture Hall), and so another storehouse was built in 1937.
At that time, the museum featured special exhibitions (currently known as the spring special exhibition with specified themes) in addition to the permanent collection exhibition. They include noteworthy exhibitions such as the Tenpyō Culture Commemoration Exhibition (1928), the Exhibition of Buddhist Sculptures by Unkei and other Sculptures in the Kamakura period (1933), the Special Exhibition of Illustrated Scrolls and Buddhist Paintings (1936), the Fujiwara Art Exhibition (1938), and the Exhibition of Sutras Presented by the Heike Family (1940). In 1931, the Nara Imperial Household Museum held the Shōsōin Gyobutsu Kogire-ten (Exhibition of Fragment Textile Treasures of the Shōsōin Imperial Storehouse) to present the result of the restoration work that was being developed by the institute.
In 1946, the museum held the first special exhibition after World War II, the Exhibition of Kyoto Imperial Palace Treasures, and in October, the institute held the 1st Shōsōin Exhibition, attended by 150,000 visitors in 22 days despite the poor infrastructure and living conditions after the war. The museum was transferred to the Ministry of Education in May, 1947, and was renamed the National Museum Nara Branch. The Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties was enacted in 1950, and the Committee for the Protection of Cultural Properties was founded under an extra-ministerial bureau of the Ministry of Education, with which the museum became affiliated. In 1952, the museum became independent and was named the Nara National Museum.
During and after the Meiji period, cultural properties were donated to museums for preservation. After the 1950’s, the government began to encourage local shrines and temples to construct storehouses for the preservation of cultural assets, and many shrines and temples requested the return of the cultural properties they had donated. The museum had previously shown only masterpieces, but in response to these requests, they restructured their exhibition practice to show more specific categories such as Buddhist sculptures, Buddhist paintings, and related decorative arts, a policy that continues to this day. During and after 1955, the spring special exhibition expanded with a series of new themes, such as Suijaku art (art of Shinto/Buddhism syncretism), Buddhist embroideries, ritual instruments of Mikkyō (Esoteric Buddhism), imported Buddhist art, treasures of sutra mounds, articles dedicated in Buddhist sculptures and gilt bronze Buddhist sculptures.
In June 1968, the Agency for Cultural Affairs replaced the Committee of Protection of Cultural Properties, and the museum was transferred to the Agency for Cultural Affairs. The new Wing buildings were completed in March 1972.
The exhibition from the museum’s Permanent Collection is based on Buddhist art studies. The displays are categorized by religious sects or background, such as Shakyamuni, Mahayana Buddhism, the Jōdo sect, the Mikkyō sect, the Zen sect and Suijaku. The Buddhist art exhibition is in the Main Museum Building, Nata Buddhist Sculpture Hall, and the West Wing. Along with development of the Buddhist art studies, exhibitions have been held in more specific subjects.
When the East Wing was completed in 1997, the museum broadly reviewed its exhibition plans. The Main Building is now used as a sculpture gallery. Masterpieces of Buddhist Sculptures created in Japan are exhibited in the main hall. In other rooms, Buddhist sculptures are displayed by subject: sculpture; genre; and production methods. Other galleries exhibit Buddhist sculptures from China and the Korean peninsula. The West Wing holds specific exhibits from the Permanent Collection including archeological artifacts, paintings, written materials, and decorative arts, but the Permanent Collection exhibits are occasionally closed because of other special exhibits. The East Wing is used primarily for the Spring Special Exhibition and the Autumn Shōsōin Exhibition but is also occasionally used for other special displays.
The museum has recently participated in the shared utilization of academic information as well as the development of information systems in various fields. Considering these activities, the Nara National Museum planned to found an institute for the purpose of academic studies on Buddhist art, as well as the creation, collection, arrangement, conservation, and publication of materials related to Buddhist art. The museum created the Buddhist Art Library in April 1980, initially located in a corner of the museum office building, but the former Nara Prefecture Commerce and Industry Exhibition Hall (designated as an important cultural property) became the official building of the library in April 1983. This library now houses the archives of books and photographs for the public.
Restoration and maintenance work is indispensable in conserving cultural properties. The museum invited professionals to repair its lacquerware in the museum’s studio. The museum decided to create a long-awaited, professional facility for the restoration of sculptures, paintings, and books. The Conservation Center was completed in 2000, and it officially began operating in 2002. Since then, the center has been involved in the restoration of many cultural properties, including national treasures, important cultural properties, and special items as designated by local governments. The center has steadily made significant achievements in the field of academic studies.

Chronology

Meiji 22(1889)
Established as the Imperial Museum of Nara.
Meiji 28(1895)
Opened to the public.
Meiji 33(1900)
Renamed the Imperial Household Museum of Nara.
Taishō 3(1914)
The Shōsōin department was established.
Shōwa 22(1947)
Transferred from the authority of the Imperial Household Ministry to the Ministry of Education.
Shōwa 25(1950)
The museum became an institution affiliated with the Committee for the Preservation of Cultural Properties.
Shōwa 27(1952)
Renamed as the Nara National Museum.
Shōwa 43(1968)
Affiliated with the Agency for Cultural Affairs.
Shōwa 47(1972)
A new exhibition building (the West Wing) was completed.
Shōwa 55(1980)
The Buddhist Art Library was opened.
Heisei 7(1995)
A ceremony was held to celebrate the centennial of the museum’s opening.
Heisei 9(1997)
The East Wing and the underground passage were completed. (The East Wing was opened in 1998.)
Heisei 13(2001)
The museum became the Nara National Museum of the Independent Administrative Institution National Museum.
Heisei 14(2002)
The Conservation Center for preserving cultural properties was completed.
Heisei 19(2007)
The museum became the Nara National Museum of the Independent Administrative Institute National Institute for Cultural Heritage

Buildings

Site area 78,760m2
Building area 19,116m2  
Nara Buddhist Sculpture Hall 1,512m2
Ritual Bronzes Gallery 664m2
West Wing 5,396m2
East Wing 6,389m2
Buddhist Art Library 718m2
Conservation Center 1,036m2
Other 3,401m2
Exhibition area 4,079m2    
Repository area 1,558m2    

Activities

Exhibitions

Exhibitions focus primarily on fine arts, decorative arts, and archeological artifacts related to Buddhism. The museum also holds the Spring and Autumn Exhibitions, special displays, featured exhibits, and the Gallery for Parents and Children. The exhibit from the Permanent Collection in the Nara Buddhist Sculpture Hall usually displays sculptures, and the exhibit from the Permanent Collection in the West Wing displays paintings, calligraphy, decorative arts, and archeological artifacts. Paintings and calligraphy works are rotated monthly; other objects are partially shuffled intermittently throughout the year. The Spring Special Exhibitions are held from late April to early June each year. The Autumn Special Exhibitions feature outstanding treasures from the Shōsōin Treasury. Special displays and featured exhibitions are relatively small exhibits, but they are available throughout the year. The Gallery for Parents and Children is an introductory exhibition for elementary or junior high school students. The museum often cosponsors an exhibition together with newspaper publications.

Lectures and Seminars

The museum offers lectures during the Special Exhibition, the Gallery for Parents and Children, and other special displays. The museum holds Sunday Talks by museum curators on the third Sunday of every month.

Buddhist Art Library

Buddhist Art Library was established in 1980 as an institution primarily engaged in the creation, collection, organization, and conservation of the materials necessary for the research of Buddhist art. Since May 1989, it has also made these books, copies of books, rubbings, photographs, and other such materials available to the general public.

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