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Questioning the Collection: V&A (please disregard previous email sent in error)

March 5, 2017


Student Number: 33465630

I chose to analyse a Japanese Samurai sword from the V&A, to consider how the Museum constructs histories and theories of design.

From the mid 12th century to the mid 19th century, Japan was ruled by a military leader known as a ‘Shogun’ who ruled the country instead of the emperor. The samurai were members of the military class, of high social rank, and served the shogun with absolute loyalty. The samurai always carried a pair of long and short swords. The long sword was for killing enemies and the short sword was for committing suicide, should the need arise. The pair of swords were not only essential weapons but also the symbol of the samurai’s honour and loyalty. In particular, the samurai was willing to die for his master without hesitation so that their honourable attitude and the honour of the shogun would never be questioned by society.

The samurai represented the social and cultural values and social position of the shogun period. The sword represents the samurai’s individual spirit, identity and responsibility for his master, and each samurai sought to distinguish himself through his chosen style of sword. The desire for a unique style of sword led to the development of greater technical craft skills. To create a sharp and strong blade without risk of bending or breaking required improved ironwork techniques. Decorative art also developed in order for the samurai to have unique style, not just through his swords, but also revealing his own character through collar, scabbard, hilt ornament and pommel.

The V&A was founded in 1852 and within a few years began displaying outstanding Japanese objects such as ceramics, woodwork, metalwork, textiles, prints and paintings. The exhibition introduced not only the mysterious and mythological Japanese culture to the West but also revealed a unique technological design and process as well. Japanese objects show skillful craftsmanship, and inspired British designers to consider eastern styles of design for their work. In particular, the samurai section, including weaponry and armour, provides educational information about the history, function, meaning and a cultural context for each object. However, in my understanding, the responsibility of the institution is not only to provide physical and technical information but also to inform how the object represents the social, cultural and political values of the society from which it is derived.

The samurai sword is one of many representations of Japanese culture. The sword itself is a symbol not only of the shogun period but also of Japanese imperialism during the Second World War. Visitors to the V&A view the objects to understand the culture and social meaning and the value of design. It is not the role of the institution to comment, but to provide an objective history, leaving the viewer to form their own opinion, according to their own purpose for viewing. I believe the V&A does provide an objective perspective, providing properly researched, impartial information to visitors about how each object reflects the time, place and reason for its creation and use. However, the viewer can also understand how each object represents a value, whether national, economic, social, cultural or political, that can be understood and carried within and beyond these derivative boundaries.


Victoria & Albert Museum visited 25.02.2017 Cromwell Road London, SW7 2RL


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