Sannenzaka Correspondence

G. Baldwin Brown: a History Forgotten by Japan’s Cultural Policy

Today, there are few who doubt the importance of monuments and art objects. Beyond their aesthetic and historical value, they hold political significance within urban spaces and are key to attracting inbound tourists within the global economy. Yet, in Japan, the complicated complex of educational and cultural industry surrounding cultural heritage seems to be progressing without any real guiding principles or concepts, despite its seemingly intellectual veneer. People are shocked to realize that the Japanese government and institutions specializing in cultural heritage and museums have little interest in the ideas and principles behind cultural heritage and history, and simply follow the latest waves. In this context, the pioneering work of British art historian Gerard Baldwin Brown, who preceded the legal justification of cultural heritage protection in the 20th century, may serve paradoxically as a testament to a lack of thinking in Japan.

There are many academic fields that deal with cultural heritage and museums. In Japan, fields such as museum studies, history, and sociology touch on related topics based on their own interests. Museum studies explain how museums should be, and how to handle antiques, while history recognizes the importance of material culture as evidence for social history, beyond traditional documentary sources. Sociology, for example, explores the relationship between war memory and exhibition. However, these discussions are mostly driven by administrative or political concerns, and have little scholarly value, revealing a lack of self-understanding about the cultural heritage being handled.

The field of law has approached the issue of cultural heritage protection with great precision, stemming from a practical interest. However, this approach remains insufficient. In Japan, there is an unusual series of papers S. Kato’s “Transnational Responses to Conflict of Laws on Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property” in 2019 which provides a detailed account of the legal justification for cultural heritage protection in international public and private law. However, despite its thorough coverage of legal debates, it unfortunately perpetuates the misinformation prevalent in the cultural heritage industry, which is not acceptable from an academic standpoint. For example, it cites the absurd and baseless notion that the origins of the concept of cultural heritage protection can be traced back to Raphael’s appointment by the Pope to handle antiques and relics. Consequently, the paper leaves serious doubts about the conceptual foundation of cultural heritage protection. It fails to recognize that the concept of cultural heritage protection is inexorably linked to the formation of the modern nation-state and lacks even a basic understanding of this global shared recognition.

G. Baldwin Brown, a British art historian who was active from the 19th to the 20th century, authored “The Care of Ancient Monuments: An Account of Legislative and Other Measures Adopted in European Countries for Protecting Ancient Monuments, Objects and Scenes of Natural Beauty, and for Preserving the Aspect of Historical Cities” in 1905. This work is considered an essential piece in the history of the concept of cultural heritage preservation. The first part of the book explores the category of monuments, while the second part analyzes various case studies on their protection from a European-wide perspective, as well as in vast regions such as Russia, Greece, Turkey, the Danubian provinces, and former colonies like India, Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia. As demonstrated by his work and related documents such as “Reports from Her Majesty’s Representatives Abroad as to the Statutory Provisions Existing in Foreign Countries for the Preservation of Historical Buildings” in 1887, the concept of cultural heritage was not only part of the Victorian era’s imperial representation system but also constructed as a retrospective view of a great age. His work, along with Alois Riegl’s “The Modern Cult of Monuments” in 1903, who was both a pioneer in establishing the discipline of art history and the draftsperson of the cultural heritage protection law of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, played a significant role in shaping the birth of the concept of cultural heritage preservation. This book is still a reference point in the international law of cultural heritage today.

Francioni, Francesco, and Ana Filipa Vrdoljak (eds), The Oxford Handbook of International Cultural Heritage Law, Oxford Handbooks (2020; online edn, Oxford Academic, 8 Oct. 2020), accessed 20 Apr. 2023.

However, Baldwin Brown’s work has been almost entirely overlooked in Japan. Translations of his work have been attempted by several authors during the Meiji and Taisho periods, mainly in the form of introductory books on art. Furthermore, Brown’s work is barely found in books about museums or cultural heritage. Even after conducting investigation in the only academic library available for us in Japan, the University of Tokyo Library, we found that “The Care of Ancient Monuments” was only preserved in difficult-to-read conditions or treated as a valuable rare book. The only place where the book was readily available was in the “Taiwan collection” in the Law School’s research library, which originally belonged to the Governor-General of Taiwan and suggests a possible link to colonialism. Despite these intriguing facts, why Brown’s existence has been forgotten in Japan remains unclear. Continuing research into his work and life may shed light on Japan’s cultural heritage industry’s overall lack of principles and foundations.

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