In the Footsteps of Perry: The Smithsonian Goes to Japan

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  • Article concerns The Smithsonian's America exhibition, an integral part of the American Festival Japan '94, which opened near Tokyo in July 1994 to celebrate the 140th anniversary of Navy Commodore Matthew Perry's trade-opening expedition to Japan. The festival had its start in 1991 when the idea was suggested to the Smithsonian by an entity representing a joint venture of Japan's major broadcast network and largest newspaper. The author was a curator for the exhibition and uses his first-hand knowledge to vividly describe at length the background details regarding the content of the Smithsonian's part of the exhibition, which included about 350 objects, almost 1,000 graphics, and a script that ran to more than 200 pages.
  • He views the Perry expedition and the Smithsonian exhibit as having commonality, since both represented America to the Japanese by using selected artifacts; Perry gave the Japanese officials he met gifts intended to present a certain image of America's culture, as were objects the Smithsonian sent to Japan for the 1994 exhibition. The author considers the problems and potential of using artifacts and exhibits, as well as music festivals, as cross-cultural communication; he offers that only when objects are accompanied by a narrative do they convey the interpretation desired, and therefore constructing a narrative is the hardest part of museum work.
  • The Smithsonian curators selected exhibit topics to present an overview of aspects of American history which highlighted the country's ethnic and racial diversity; however, a long and arduous negotiation process ensued when cultural differences prompted disagreements between the Japanese and American teams regarding exhibit presentation and interpretation, all of which challenged the curator's standard assumptions about artifacts, narrative, education, and entertainment. The author states that during the compromise process some facets of the physical exhibit were changed to conform with Japanese suggestions, but the Smithsonian curators did not compromise on the content, theme or narrative they believed necessary to help Japanese exhibition visitors better understand the United States.
  • He concludes the article with several comments, among them the observation that the Smithsonian exhibition reversed the Perry mission, as Perry gave the Japanese technology and received in exchange representative cultural goods, whereas today the Japanese are shipping technology to America, and Americans are giving them culture in many forms, such as movies and popular music.


  • United States Naval Expedition to Japan, 1852-1854
  • Smithsonian's America: An Exhibition on American History and Culture, The (Exhibition) (1994: Chiba, Japan)


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


The author is chair of the Division of the History of Technology at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History; he was one of the curators of The Smithsonian's America exhibit. The article contains 74 source footnotes.

Contained within

The Public Historian Vol. 17, No. 3 (Journal)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,


Summer 1995


  • Antiquities
  • Exhibitions
  • Museums
  • Museum curators
  • Museum exhibits


  • Japan
  • Washington (D.C.)

Physical description

pgs. 25-59

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