Postcard from Tokyo

PEM is lending a group of approximately 300 objects to the Edo-Tokyo museum, all of which were collected by Edward Sylvester Morse during a series of visits to Japan in the 1870s and 1880s. This broad assortment of objects used in everyday life (kitchen utensils, carpenter’s tools, articles of clothing, merchant signs, etc.), collected by a scientist from New England who was deeply interested in Japanese culture, will be featured in an exhibition opening there September 2013.

The story of how this important collection was amassed and how it forged a strong bond between Salem and Tokyo is fascinating.  So, too, is the process of transporting a large group of artwork from Salem to Tokyo.  I was honored to be selected to accompany one of two shipments to Tokyo this summer.  In part to formally photo-document the travel process for my colleagues at PEM, but also to share in this blog, I have tried to capture some of the unseen intricacies and meticulous orchestrations involved in shipping art half way across the globe.  Let’s retrace the journey together!


All the Morse objects are photographed at PEM before being packed away. Photo by Whitney Van Dyke


7 am — Thursday. I meet the truck delivering the PEM shipment of eight crates to a cargo facility at Logan Airport. The unloading of the crates begins almost immediately. I haven’t left American soil yet but my adventure begins in this exotic location. Never fear — PEM has hired a customs agent (the man at left wearing a baseball hat) to shepherd me and the crates through this process.


The sticker on the left is applied by the agent, complementing the one affixed by PEM at the outset of the shipment. He understands how the cargo facility operates and knows all warehouse personnel. These insights and relationships play a critical role in successfully negotiating this first leg of the journey.


While in the cargo facility, the agent and I are confined to a small area behind a yellow line painted across the floor. This confinement ensures the crates, once screened and made into a pallet, cannot be tampered with prior to being loaded onto the plane. The customs agent once had greater latitude to wander the cargo facility and tarmac, but today his movement is nearly as restricted as mine.


The PEM crates are palletized on a large metal tray. They are then covered with plastic sheeting and tethered down to the tray with nylon netting. The neatly arranged PEM crates constitute a “pure” pallet – in other words, no other containers share space on the pallet with the PEM crates. As soon as the plane is ready, the pallet will leave the warehouse.


10:30 am — Because neither I nor the customs agent are able to witness the loading of the palette first-hand, a Massachusetts state trooper is hired to do so. My work at the cargo facility is finished now and I am driven by the customs agent to Logan Terminal E. The trooper, meanwhile, will accompany the pallet across the tarmac to the plane.


1 pm — At the gate, I get a phone call from the trooper, confirming that he witnessed the loading of the pallet into the plane. The open cargo door and the machinery used in the loading process is plainly visible. To the far left you can also see the outer edge of a police cruiser. He’s doing his job!


Having boarded, I take one last photo before powering down my phone. The trooper pulls away as soon as the plane backs out of the gate. Onward, upward and eastward to Japan!


Friday evening. After a 13 hour plane ride, I arrive at Narita International airport, pass through customs and am greeted by a Japanese customs agent. Working with his US counterpart, he knows exactly which pallet to locate and load into his truck. Thanks to his coordination, the PEM crates transition swiftly from plane to truck and ultimately to loading dock 35 miles away in downtown Tokyo – in only about three hours. I watch as the truck pulls into the dock, the crates are unloaded and taken to a secure area within the museum. They acclimatize over the weekend before being opened.


Over 24 hours of travel has come to a successful and safe end! Having barely enough energy to stand, let alone smile, I pose for a picture with Jun Kobayashi, vice director of the Edo Tokyo Museum and the chief organizer of the exhibition.


Daylight and my first glimpse of the museum’s exterior. It’s a large and imposing structure, modeled loosely after a torii, a traditional Japanese gate.


I’ve been to some expansive museums in my life – the Louvre, the British Museum, the Palace Museum in Beijing — But I have never seen such a cavernous space as this. The stream of people seen here are walking across a full-scale replica of a famous wooden bridge built in 1603 that no longer survives in its original form.


All of the exhibits are engaging, many are immersive. I chose not to climb inside this carrying chair, but watched as many uninhibited Japanese tourists did.


The timing of my flight allowed for a few days of “tourist time.” Many important cultural landmarks were near my hotel and on my “bucket list.” One was Sensoji temple, one of Japan’s oldest Buddhist temples. Most of the tourists hovered near the temple itself. I wandered the grounds a bit and was able to find a quiet spot to take this picture.


After a weekend of sightseeing, it was time to attend to essential business. Every object in the eight crates — 176 in all — needed to be uncrated and individually examined.


I was joined in this effort by Shuko Koyama, a curator at Edo-Tokyo and key collaborator on this project. For nearly four days we sat at this table while a crew of art handlers removed PEM objects from their crates and brought them to us for inspection.


Every object had an accompanying condition report which alerted me to any pre-existing condition issues such as scratches, holes and cracks. I put my hands and eyes on every object to check for signs of new or unreported damage or a change in a previously reported condition.


Edward Sylvester Morse is out of the crate! He survived the journey just fine.


A small group of Edo-Tokyo staff observed the unpacking and conditioning process. Here, a young assistant examines a group of objects that are destined for storage.


The secured staging area was a useful, well-lit environment to uncrate and condition the objects. At the end of each day, however, I accompanied the exposed works to an even more highly secured storage room. Note the slippers everyone is wearing. Shoes are not worn when passing from the main basement corridor to the corridor approaching the storage rooms.


I have seen storage rooms near and far that embody thoughtful design, but entire spaces that are lined with cedar? I’m still contemplating whether cedar was used here because it is a common building material in Japan, because it is strong and resists decay, because symbolically cedar is culturally meaningful – or some combination of all three!


“Otsukare sama deshita!” loosely translates to “Job well done!” I found this one of the more meaningful Japanese phrases I learned while in Tokyo. Shuko encouraged me to always say this with emphasis.


At every turn I was welcomed and treated graciously by my Japanese hosts. On the eve of my return to Boston, I was taken to a celebratory dinner. Jun, Shuko and Hiroyuki Kimiwada, a representative from a sponsoring partner of the Morse exhibition, treated me to a meal highlighted by delicious sashimi (and equally delicious beer and saki). We were feeling as happy about the meal we just ate as the events of the preceding week.


An early proof of an exhibition promotion poster, which will be widely posted in subways and public areas around Tokyo.

I return to Boston with a bag full of souvenirs and head swirling with memories.  I leave Japan and the PEM loans behind, confident that the Morse exhibition is an endeavor worthy of the effort countless professionals on both sides of the Pacific have made to transit artwork such a great distance.

Editor’s Note: This well-timed article  from July 13 by The Boston Globe’s Sebastian Smee looks at the art critic’s first impressions of Japan and those of other Westerners.

Update: Reader Robert Sandow sent this photo and question: Did you know of the following photograph which shows Morse in a jinrikisha in the summer of 1877?



  1. Gary Bush says:

    Fascinating! Thank you, Eric, for documenting so well how priceless artwork is transported internationally, a topic I always wondered about. Might have to return to Tokyo to see some of “our stuff”.

  2. Barry Duell says:

    Thank you for your report, Eric. I had no idea how involved moving a collection overseas can be. Living not far from the Edo-Tokyo Museum, I look forward to visiting the exhibit when it opens Sept. 14. I have been wanting to download some E.S. Morse files from the database “Meiji Japan: The Edward Sylvester Morse Collection from thePeabody Essex Museum, Salem” created by Adam Matthew Digital. Is there a way I may do that at PEM when visiting Boston later next month?

  3. Bob Sandow says:

    What a shame I will be leaving the Tokyo area before the exhibit opens. The museum is first-rate in the world as a urban/regional history museum and quite accessible even if you don’t speak Japanese. I think there is a real irony that Morse’s collection of ordinary objects from the Meiji period are making a temporary reverse trip to Japan. It vindicates Morse’s view that Japanese society was changing so rapidly in the Meiji period that traditions and history were being lost. Also, it shows that he was so far ahead of his time to collect objects illustrating ordinary life when so many wealthy foreign travelers focused on a narrow range of orientalist art objects. Long before the advent of social history, he was studying the people. What a great opportunity!

  4. Barry Duell says:

    What a fascinating photograph provided by Robert Sandow. On the side, below the title, “A Summer in Japan,” it says: negative by WHM. At the photo’s bottom it says: “360 rice fields – newly planted.” WHM must be William Henry Metcalf who was Morse’s travel companion when they set off on a tour of Japan in summer 1977, and purportedly one of the first tourists to bring along his own camera to Japan. In the research paper “Japan Day by Day?
    William Henry Metcalf, Edward Sylvester Morse and Early Tourist Photography in Japan” (link given below), another WHM photo from the same “A Summer in Japan,” series is reproduced:

  5. Barry Duell says:

    The exhibition of several hundred items collected by Edward Sylvester Morse during his Japan visits in 1870s and 1880s opened at Edo Tokyo Museum yesterday. I leisurely made my way through the exhibit and indeed felt it offers a unique way to connect with the city life of Japan some 130 years. The way the objects are displayed, the way these mostly used objects that were ordinary to the people they were collected from, and so on, gave the experience of opening a well-documented time capsule. The exhibition catalog is also very well done. Of great surprise was to emerge from the exhibit into the gift shop, and to find more than half of the items for sale mirroring many of the exhibition objects! The staff I asked about this said they had gone to great lengths searching all corners of Japan to locate craftspeople still making Meiji or earlier era objects. I had so wished during my visit to Peabody Essex Museum last month to see on display similar selected objects from your marvelous Morse collection. There indeed was a sampling of fine Japanese art objects from many different eras in the Japanese Collection in Charles Goddard Weld Hall. But, might you also consider rotating objects from the Morse collection as part of a permanent exhibit giving a snapshot of Meiji Japan life? We learned so much from our tour of one of PEM’s historic homes, the Gardner- Pingree House, to acquire knowledge about early Salem merchants’ lives, and then touring the Yin Yu Tang house to then be able to compare merchant family life from two eras/two countries. May permanent display of the ethnologically precious Morse collection be considered at your fine museum.

  6. Alan Pate says:


    After hearing you tell the tale of this adventure over lunch last week, it was fun to stumble upon this on the internet! Great documentation and gives just a small indication of the tremendous amount of work required for all of these exhibitions. Looking forward to working more with you in the future.

  7. Jane says:

    I enjoyed seeing some stages of how the Morse Collection was prepared to return for an exhibit in Japan. What a wonderful adventure for you! I came upon the Peabody Essex Museum (a wonderful adventure for me) because of this collection-while writing for The Japan Times from the Berkshires. Besides seeing objects of everyday life in Meiji Japan, I was surprised to learn that Morse’s introduction to Japan was related to marine life and that he uncovered the Omori shell mounds in the town where I lived in Japan. As Halloween approaches, I was thinking of Salem, wanting to track down the Morse Collection only to find this interesting blog account. From what I gather, there is a larger Japan collection at PEM and that the Morse Collection is not on permanent display.

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