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