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Tea Leaves

Japan's museums trapped between light and shadow

How a great artistic culture takes the glow out of precious works

At Japanese museums, screens are often displayed behind glasses and lit from overhead.

For visitors to Japan, direct experience of its myriad arts can both exhilarate and disappoint. No one fails to be enchanted by the great temples and shrines, the quiet, serene gardens and the subtle blending of nature and architecture. A design on a box of matches can seem artistically inspired in a uniquely Japanese way, and the often-bizarre modernism of buildings, gadgets, dress and popular entertainment provides endless fascination because there seems to be no limit to imagination or expression.

However, visitors to the country's many museums may be less satisfied when they see traditional paintings, badly lit and often obscured by glass panels, which appear flat and boring compared to those they have seen in temples and palaces. They will be mystified by objects such as tea bowls of incalculable value that appear cold and lifeless in protective glass cases, their artistic merit difficult to perceive.

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