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Bashford Dean and Japanese Arms and Armor

Donald J. La Rocca, Curator, Department of Arms and Armor

Posted: Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Bashford Dean in Japanese armor

Left: Bashford Dean photographed in Japan about 1900 wearing a Japanese armor from his private collection. Right: The same armor, which is now in the Metropolitan's collection, photographed today. Armor (Gusoku), 19th century. Japanese, Edo period. Iron, leather, lacquer, silk, copper alloy. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1904 (04.4.2)

«During scientific research trips to Japan in the 1890s, Bashford Dean (1867–1928), founding curator of the Department of Arms and Armor, immersed himself in the study of Japanese arms and armor. By about 1900 he had assembled a private collection of approximately 125 pieces. When Dean lent his collection to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1903, it was the most comprehensive of its kind in the United States.»

Dean personally designed and installed the display of the collection at the Museum and wrote an accompanying catalogue, which was the most detailed English-language book on the subject at the time. It remains a valuable scholarly introduction to the material more than a century later.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hand-book No. 14.

Spread from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hand-book No. 14. Catalogue of the Loan Collection of Japanese Armor, by Bashford Dean (New York, 1903)

Dean sold the collection to the Museum at cost in 1904. He then used the proceeds of the sale to build an even larger collection of Japanese arms and armor so he could donate it to the Museum, which he did in 1914.

Notes for a Catalogue of Japanese Arms and Armor in the Museum

Notes for a Catalogue of Japanese Arms and Armor in the Museum, Bashford Dean, 1907

We know a lot about how Dean planned out his early installations in the Museum thanks to a notebook, shown above, in which he made detailed lists of the objects to be included in each case, with sketches of how the pieces should be arranged. The display consisted of thirty-eight cases located on the north balcony at the head of the grand staircase in the Museum's Main Building. Two pages from the notebook show Dean's ideas for rearranging one of the cases in 1907. The items in the notebook that are cited as "Lent, 1907, by B.D," were later part of Dean's donation to the Museum in 1914. A photograph from 1909 shows the same case as it actually appeared.

Installation of Japanese arms and armor on the North balcony of the main hall

The installation of Japanese arms and armor on the north balcony of the main hall of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photographed in 1909

In 1905, Dean arranged the transfer of a group of early Egyptian objects from The Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Imperial Museum in Tokyo (later the Tokyo National Museum) in exchange for a rare group of arms and armor from the Kofun period (third to seventh century) that he had carefully selected. The exchange became official in 1906, giving the Metropolitan a collection of Kofun material unmatched in the West. The tsuba pictured below was part of that exchange. It comes from a burial mound (kofun) in Shioda, in the Japanese province of Bizen, and is one of the earliest sword guards to survive from Japan. Some of the pieces acquired by the Museum in the exchange would now be officially classified as national treasures had they remained in Japan.

Sword Guard (Tsuba)

Sword Guard (Tsuba), ca. 3rd–7th century. Japanese, Kofun period. Gilt bronze. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Bashford Dean, by exchange, 1906 (06.310.11)

In 1915, the Department of Arms and Armor moved into a new series of galleries designed by famous New York architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White. Two of the galleries were specially outfitted to feature the Japanese collection. 

New gallery of Japanese arms and armor in 1915

New gallery of Japanese arms and armor in 1915

In 1917, Dean spent about three months in Japan, on his last extended trip there, visiting dozens of dealers, private collectors, and old associates in Tokyo, Yokohama, Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka, and Nara. 

Bashford Dean in Japan with Kobori Tomoto

Bashford Dean in Japan with the painter and arms and armor collector Kobori Tomoto (1864–1931), 1917

During this trip he purchased a large number of objects for the Museum, including a selection of swords, sword mountings and fittings, and armor from the distinguished private collection of Masauji Gōda (1844–1917), pictured below. By the time of Bashford Dean's retirement in 1927, The Metropolitan Museum of Art had the most comprehensive collection of Japanese arms and armor outside Japan.

Masaouji Goda

The collector Masaouji Goda (1844–1917), photographed by Bashford Dean in Kyoto, Japan, 1917

Related Link
Bashford Dean and the Creation of the Arms and Armor Department (on view through October 13, 2014)

Department(s): Arms and Armor
Tag(s): Bashford Dean

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About the Author

Donald J. La Rocca is a curator in the Department of Arms and Armor.

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