Japan’s cultural offerings are hard to access if you don’t know Japanese. Few museums provide more than cursory signage in English, and tours and audio guides are generally only in Japanese. Foreign visitors understandably feel frustrated with the experience they get in most of Japan’s museums — it’s like paying full fare but having to hang outside the train window as everything rushes past you!
Believe me, museums are aware of the problem and would love to provide a better experience for international visitors. But few curators have the language skills to prepare captions or conduct a gallery talk in English. They do hire professional translators when budgets allow, but adding one foreign language jacks up the cost of an exhibition by at least 30%. So what’s the solution?
I’ve been testing out an idea. When I do a major translation job for a museum, which involves learning all about the exhibits anyway, I offer to do a gallery talk in English. My first opportunity to do this was at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, where I gave two tours of the Shimooka Renjo exhibition I worked on. Now I’m at it again — at the newly reopened Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum.
I translated a weighty booklet about the main building of the museum, a gem of Art Deco design and architecture built in 1933 for a member of the Imperial family. I also produced the English text and audio for a free self-guide app about the museum. I gave one tour for foreigners last month, right after the reopening, and have another coming up. Naturally, a curator comes along to field any questions I can’t answer. What I bring to the table is enthusiasm for the subject matter and a demonstrated ability to communicate about Japan in English. That’s been my professional specialty for the last 15 years.
Consider yourself invited on my next and final tour of 2014. On Friday Dec. 19 at 4 pm. I’ll lead a tour of about an hour focusing on the history and highlights of that grand Art Deco palace, the former Prince Asaka Residence. The tour is free with regular admission, and as a special bonus, I’m offering one pair of tickets by lottery for blog readers. If you’d like to enter, drop me a line through the contact form on this blog with your name and address and whether you’d like one ticket or two. Here’s how to get to the museum.
To enjoy more of Thomas Gittel’s photographs of the Prince Asaka Residence, please visit his blog.
Update Dec. 12: The drawing is now closed. Congratulations to L.F. and S.K. — I’ve sent you emails letting you know your tickets are on the way.