Interview with Founders and Staff

Dame Elizabeth Esteve-Coll: Part 3

Dame Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, the former Vice-Chancellor of University of East Anglia (UEA) and former Director of the V&A Museum has played an integral part in the success of the Sainsbury Institute serving as a Trustee since the Institute’s humble beginnings in 1999 when, as she said, ‘the organization was just a two women team.’ In this third instalment she discusses with Professor Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, the Founding Director and presently the Research Director of the Sainsbury Institute, what she considers were the Institute’s most memorable projects as well as her views on the Institute’s vast network of supporters, past, present and future, and what she would like to see the Institute accomplish in the next decade.

Dame Elizabeth’s most memorable projects by SISJAC

Dame Elizabeth Esteve-Coll

Dame Elizabeth Esteve-Coll

Dame Elizabeth confesses that it is very difficult for her to pick which of SISJAC’s events are the most memorable because she feels the institute has been remarkably successful in all of its exhibitions, events, and lectures. However, for her, three exhibitions Sharaku and Other Hidden Japanese Masterworks from the Land of NAUSICAA (Tokyo Metropolitan Edo-Tokyo Museum, 2009), Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan (The British Museum, 2007), and The Power of Dogu: Ceramic Figures from Ancient Japan (The British Museum, 2009) were particularly striking.

Dame Elizabeth recounted that: ‘[The exhibitions] brought in large audiences and they lifted the international reputation of the Sainsbury Institute for being innovative and immensely scholarly. They also introduced the public to subjects that they were completely unaware of in completely different spheres.’

Sharaku and other Hidden Japanese Masterworks from the Land of NAUSICAA featured an extremely rare painting by Tōshūsai Sharaku in the collection of the Museum of Asian Art in Corfu and exhibited in the Tokyo Metropolitan Edo-Tokyo Museum in 2009. Sharaku is arguably the most famous Japanese artist whose paintings are almost all lost. While a number of his woodblock prints survive, there are only two known paintings by the artist left in the world. One is held in a private collection in Japan and the other, which was in recent years discovered by a team of scholars led by Professor Kobayashi Tadashi with Professor Nicole Rousmaniere, is housed in Corfu. The discovery was such that the exhibition in Tokyo, sponsored by the Yomiuri Newspaper, received major media coverage including a special television programme created and broadcast by NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation).

‘As a result of [Prof. Rousmaniere]’s knowledge of the collection in the [Museum of Asian Art in Corfu], a survey of the collection was conducted by leading Japanese art historians who were astonished, delighted and thrilled to discover a genuine fan painted by Sharaku. Consequently, an exhibition was held that went to one of Japan’s major metropolitan museums, which was an incredible success. It brought awareness of the amazing collection of prints and paintings in the collection in Corfu to the museum visiting public in Japan.’

Exhibition of Sharaku fan painting in the Museum of Asian Art Corfu collection at the Metropolitan Edo-Tokyo Museum

Exhibition of Sharaku fan painting in the Museum of Asian Art Corfu collection at the Metropolitan Edo-Tokyo Museum

The exhibition Crafting Beauty, another of Dame Elizabeth’s favourites, was held at the British Museum and curated by Prof. Rousmaniere in 2007. Dame Elizabeth recalls that even Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, was hesitant about the exhibition at first but later told staff that it had been a ‘great success’! Officially titled, Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan: Celebrating 50 Years of the Japan Arts Crafts Association this exhibition sought to showcase the most beautiful Japanese art crafts produced during the past fifty years including textiles, metal, lacquer, wood, ceramics, bamboo, dolls and glass.

‘The museum going public in London, particularly the younger members, was astonished by the range and imaginative innovative impact of Japanese craft. Particularly art and design students came in droves to look at the textiles and ceramics which were largely unknown to them and which they found hugely exciting. The numbers of people going through that small exhibition, which acted as a taster to what is really going on in contemporary art in Japan, has, I think, been quite influential. It has left the public hungry for more chances to see Japanese cutting edge craft in Britain.’

The Power of Dogū, the third exhibition that was highlighted by Dame Elizabeth, was held at the British Museum in 2009 and featured 67 dogū, abstract clay figures with recognizably human or animal features, lent by many different public and private institutions and individuals in Japan. Dogū evolved within the earliest dated continuous tradition of pottery manufacture in the world, stretching back to around 12,500 BC. The Robert and Lisa Sainsbury collection includes a few of these rare, extraordinary objects which, as a result of this exhibition, were highlighted in a separate exhibition, Unearthed, held at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in 2010. Dame Elizabeth argues that this British Museum exhibition, like the previous two, brought an aspect of Japanese culture to the attention of the museum going public in the UK that was largely unknown, except by experts.

She reflects: ‘[The dogū] then went on to [be exhibited in] Japan where Jômon art had already been appreciated for some considerable time, probably for 40 or 50 years, but the general public were largely unaware of the scale and quantity of figurines that were produced in this period.’

Vision for the future

When invited to talk about the kinds of future projects she envisions for the Institute, Dame Elizabeth replied: ‘It’s very difficult to be specific. So frequently a research topic arises from an informal discussion amongst researchers and scholars and suddenly the topic begins to be recognized as being of cutting edge importance.’

The Power of Dogu exhibition held at the British Museum, which  brought together nearly 70 clay figurines including those designated  as National Treasure and Important Cultural Properties by the  Japanese government

The Power of Dogu exhibition held at the British Museum, which
brought together nearly 70 clay figurines including those designated
as National Treasure and Important Cultural Properties by the
Japanese government

Dame Elizabeth went to on to explain that there were four areas with room for pivotal development: South Asia, The Institute’s Friends group, the Institute’s Website and relationship with the UEA. She hopes that the Sainsbury Institute will begin to work with Asian art historians from a much wider range of countries than it does now, particularly with those from South Asia. She believes that the Friends of the Institute group will continue to grow and could become extremely influential as a source of support, fresh ideas, networking and outreach. Additionally, she feels that the Internet is now so well structured and accessible that it will be possible to develop multiple kinds of web based activities.

‘People coming to Norwich constantly comment to me, “how is it possible that people in Norwich and in the East Anglia region are aware of Japan and its art, are interested in it, and are actually informed about it?” [This has been made possible] from the outreach that was begun at a very early stage into a position [the Institute is in] now where I think you have a worldwide audience for education and research projects to be disseminated through the web.’
She believes stronger relationships with the University and in particular with Japanese studies would be beneficial for all involved and essential for future development of the field in the UK. Lastly, she foresees the University of East Anglia using the Institute’s presence in the city centre to their advantage, particularly as a boost for its regional reputation, research, and public outreach.

She hopes that the Sainsbury Institute will continue to develop research projects and its collaborations with great museums, universities and scholars of all levels around the world.

‘It would be wonderful to see more posts involved because what has been achieved with a handful of people is quite amazing, but if you had a few more people it would certainly be even better.’

Promoting the importance of Japan

Unlike many other universities who have chosen to pursue Chinese language and cultural studies, the University of East Anglia is instead focusing its attention on Japan by establishing lectureships to teach Japanese language and also Japanese cultural heritage. Dame Elizabeth feels this is in no small measure due to the success of the Sainsbury Institute.

Recently, Keio University in Japan and the Institute established a librarian secondment programme. The first intern, Miss Yamada Maya, recently completed her three-month secondment at the Lisa Sainsbury Library in Norwich working with the Institute’s Librarian, Hirano Akira. Commenting on this, Dame Elizabeth argues:

Promoting excellence: collaborative Sainsbury Institute for Arts (SIFA) project between  UEA’s World Art Studies department, Sainsbury Centre and Sainsbury Institute to investigate  the future of university museums with museum experts from Japan and the UK

Promoting excellence: collaborative Sainsbury Institute for Arts (SIFA) project between
UEA’s World Art Studies department, Sainsbury Centre and Sainsbury Institute to investigate
the future of university museums with museum experts from Japan and the UK

‘The [Lisa Sainsbury Library] collection which is still being built up [to] now well over 35,000 volumes and is an extraordinary example of using networking and exploiting personal contacts to develop a research collection which of 90% has been donated. I feel that because the library is so good and has so much material in Japanese, it is important for Japanese librarians to be aware of the scale of the collection, and the way it is organised, because a lot of library practice in the UK is different from practices in Japan. Recently the Art Library Society (ARLIS/ UK & Ireland) published an issue of the Art Libraries Journal (ALS). The publication is a completely devoted to libraries in Japan so that librarians and people working in resource collections in North America and Europe will have more familiarity with the great collections and their usage in Japan. So it is a two-way process which can only be beneficial for all participants.’

Dame Elizabeth has been associated with the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures from the Institute’s very conception to the present day and she has played a pivotal role in its growth. It has been incredibly rewarding to discuss with her how she views the Institute – past, present and future.

Yoko Kishida, Research and Public Relations Officer and Megan Nash-Good, Publication Research Officer