Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science (国立科学博物館 / ここりつかがくはかぶつかん)

I work in a science and industry museum. Two years ago, while we were in Tokyo, on a rainy day, we went to look at the nearest equivalent to the place I work. Situated in Ueno Park (上野公園 / うえのこうえん) is the National Museum of Nature and Science (国立科学博物館 / ここりつかがくはかぶつかん). This site is home to the Japan Gallery and the Global Gallery. The museum has a second site at Tsukuba which houses the Centre of the History of Japanese Technology, the Collection Centre and the Tsukuba Botanical Garden. We didn’t have time to go there, but it’s somewhere I hope to visit.

The first thing we did when we arrived was to stow our wet umbrellas and bags in the lockers. The second thing we did was head for the café/picnic area. I loved this, working as I do in a museum where visitors are segregated according to whether they are willing to pay to eat in the café or restaurant or whether they have brought their own packed lunch with them. At the National Museum of Nature and Science, you could buy from the array of food at the café counter or eat your own food, and you could sit anywhere you wanted to. We sat at a picnic bench surrounded by Japanese school children, some of whom had brought their own bento, which they were supplementing with snacks and drinks from the café and vending machines, and some who had lunch money to spend in the café.

We bought a couple of inari bento boxes, containing four large inari zusshi and four maki rolls of egg and pickle. It was fun to eat among the school children, who were as bundled full of energy as British school children, but twice as cute!

Satisfied by our impromptu lunch, we headed off to the Japan Gallery to look at the natural history of Japan’s many islands. The gallery is made up of five main rooms which explore the nature of the islands, the history of the islands, the evolution of native species, the development of Japanese society and the way humans interact with nature in Japan. Or put another way, the gallery as a whole tells the story of how Japan came to be as it is now, how its people have adapted to the environment over the centuries and how they have used science to understand the nature that surrounds them.

Because we were wet when we arrived and had allowed ourselves to be diverted by the promise of food, we missed out on finding out that there were audio guides for rent, as well as an interactive card system that allows visitors to collect information from the exhibits they like the most and then download what they’ve found out when they go home and look at the museum website.

The first floor was full of chronometers, celestial globes and seismographs. Some of the chronometers were beautiful, although my photograph doesn’t do them justice because of the necessary low light in the gallery and the reflections on the glass cases. From a professional point of view, the displays were really good. The cases looked as though they had easy access for the curators, and the way objects were displayed was clear without obstruction from supports and restraints.

One object in particular in this room gave me pause for thought: a seismograph that had recorded the Great Kanto Earthquake ( 関東大震災/ かんとうだいしんさい). To see where the needle had etched into the barrel the vibrations and movements of the earth that caused such destruction and devastation was a strange sensation – that this scientific record is pretty much all that remains of that event.

The second floor displays explored the relationships between the different Japanese peoples across different eras and the way they have interacted with and exploited the natural resources of the islands. The displays were a mixture of botanical samples, taxidermy and models of different species.

 

On the third floor we found fossil records and palaeontology, including a Plesiosaur Futabasaurus suspended from the ceiling in the north wing of the gallery.

After filling our heads with the geological development of the Japanese islands, we headed for the Global Gallery, which is housed in a separate building. This building has six floors of displays, and we were beginning to come down with Museum Fatigue so we limited ourselves to two. Because of the museum where I work having a strong focus on the development of industrial processes, we chose the Progress in Science & Technology room on the second floor.

The space begins with a hands-on experiments section, which had taken quite a hammering from children! Quite a few of the interactives weren’t working, which is fairly typical for this sort of exhibit. We have the same problems where I work – build something that people like to interact with, and you spend as much time repairing it as people do using it!

The rest of the room explored the development of science and technology from the Edo period to the period of modernisation after the Meiji Restoration. My favourite Edo period item was an anatomical model of the human form:

In the modernisation section, there were a couple of exhibits that I liked. One was a display of early computers, which I mostly liked because the English-language interpretation panel referenced a computer for which we have a working model where I work! The other was of a person operating a lathe, supplemented by engineering drawings and documents showing how the lathe was built.

Overall, I found this gallery to be a little stark and not as engaging as I had hoped. It didn’t take much looking around it before we were ready to move on.

Our appetites having been whetted by the plesiosaur in the Japan Gallery, our final stop at the museum was the first basement floor, where the guide promised us we would solve the mysteries of the dinosaurs. I love dinosaurs. As with most geeks, I’ve loved them since I can remember loving anything. My best job so far has been working at the Natural History Museum in London and getting to see dinosaurs every day. So I was really looking forward to solving the mystery of the dinosaurs.

I was expecting a large space, similar in size to the other rooms we had been in so far, but what we found was a small room with a couple of dozen dinosaur skeletons and replica skeletons crammed together. Even walking up to the viewing platform and looking down on the exhibits, it was difficult to make sense of the display. We undoubtedly gained a sense of scale – you can’t not marvel at how big dinosaurs were, especially not when they are jam packed alongside each other – but it felt like a bit of a jumble. And it was hard to take a decent photograph – and let’s face it, that’s what most of us were there for – the photo opportunity!

 

We’d spent a good three to four hours looking around, and there was plenty that we didn’t manage to fit in. It’s a day trip of a museum, I’d say, and definitely worth a visit. Because of the wet weather, we didn’t venture up to the roof level of the Global Gallery, but I’m determined to get up there on our next visit – I want to see the parasol garden, where parasols with infrared sensors react to motion and open as visitors approach them, and I want to see the herb garden, too.

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