Saturday, 29 September 2007

Konpo - Learning to Pack

There are times when everything seems tough and I wonder what the heck I'm doing studying at a Japanese university, and then there are times when things just seem to click and I realize that I LOVE what I am doing. Today had a bit of both. The highlight came this afternoon in the fourth year internship class that I am sitting in on in preparation for taking it next year. Our subject today was packing (konpo, 梱包). We had a short lecture, then watched a deadly dull video. I admit that I drifted off a few times but since one of the professors had his head propped up on the wall and his eyes closed for quite a while I am sure I was not the only one who napped. In fact, I'd be very surprised if more than a handful of the 60 or so students in the class DIDN'T fall asleep! Anyhow, the video was followed by a demonstration, so we all moved up to the front rows of the classroom to watch the professors pack up two very different items - a haniwa (Japanese clay figure found in and around 3rd-6th century funeary mounds)

and a Western type bust of a woman wearing a large helmet. Now the prospect of watching professors demonstrate how to pack up these two objects may not seem all that exciting but I found it fascinating - I guess that is why I chose this new major, eh?!

(Before I go any further I want to apologize for the poor quality of the images I've included. I scanned in some of the images from our text/handbook and the poor quality is not due to my scanner, the originals are just as bad.!)

The Japanese have developped traditional techniques and have a very highly developped speciality in packing museum and art objects. The basic technique starts with specialized "blankets" of cotton batting pads that are then ripped to the right size and wrapped in sheets of Japanese tissue paper.

These are then fastened to the object by tying strips of the same tissue paper around the middle.

Once the object has been fully padded by these "blankets" it is then wrapped in what is somewhat like a special cotton tensor bandage and

then tied in multiple directions by cord.

It sounds all rather confusing but it is a rather neat process, figuring out how to position everything and how big or small to make each indvidual blanket. I'm looking forward to next year when I'll get to try my hand at it myself!

In reality, however, even if any of the students trying their hand at packing in this class actually become curators it is unlikely that they will ever be in charge of packing an item for anything more than a short cross-city hand delivery. Major packing at a Japanese museum is usually done by outside specialized staff, a special branch of one of Japanese delivery companies. If they are shipping an item they want to be the ones who have the responsibility for the packing. Two years ago I had the opportunity to visit the offices of such a place two years ago with the director of the museum where I work and a visiting American curator. We were sending objects that had been on display in Tokyo back to her museum in Saint Louis. It was a really neat experience and I have two strong memories - I remember how disgusted the specialized staff were by the state in which the items had been packed for their shipment to Japan and how impressed the American curator was by the specialization and obvious skill of the Japanese packers! This is one area, as my professors today pointed out, that the Japanese do very well. But I suppose that won't come as a surprise to anybody who has ever purchased anything in a Japanese store and been treated to mulitple layers of packaging and bags!!

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