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Arts

Virtual reality to take Japan's national treasures nationwide

Rent proceeds to be used to repair damaged items

An artist's rendition shows how the Tokyo National Museum displayed a replica folding screen against a projected backdrop during a recent exhibit. VR videos and more replicas are on the way.

TOKYO -- Japan's national museums house some 130,000 cultural artifacts, and for the most part, these pieces of history stay right where they are. For one reason or another -- often fragility -- lending them out to other museums just isn't feasible. A new program, however, is about to make these precious works accessible to a much wider audience, thanks to virtual reality and cutting-edge printing technology. 

The National Institutes for Cultural Heritage intends to build a collection of virtual reality videos and precise replicas, and rent them out instead of the real thing. The government-affiliated organization, which runs the national museums and manages the country's cultural properties, plans to use the proceeds to repair damaged items. 

The Agency for Cultural Affairs, which governs the organization, has set aside 800 million yen ($7.19 million) for the program in its draft budget for fiscal 2018, which starts in April. The goal is to create about 10 videos or replicas a year, working with businesses.

The VR footage could allow viewers to check out the interior of structures that are closed to the public, and look down on buildings from above. Animated characters might serve as tour guides. 

The painstakingly crafted replicas will include priceless, delicate pieces that are rarely offered for public viewing -- akin to an ornamental folding screen the Tokyo National Museum recreated last year and put on display in July. The original screen is designated a national treasure. 

Only 1,560 of the 130,000 pieces were rented out in 2016, according to an official of the cultural agency. The official said museums are unable to meet many rental requests, which come in from domestic and overseas museums alike.  

Database of the past

As part of the new program, the heritage organization also plans to update a cultural database it created last March. Users will be able to determine where specific items are on display at each of the four national museums. Information on the restoration status of various items will be included as well. This should make it easier for local governments and businesses to find items that are actually available for rent.

A total of 35 specialists will be newly assigned to the national museums. New curators will be tasked with arranging shows and events that make use of the VR footage and replicas. Registrars will log and manage the cultural properties. 

The Cultural Affairs Agency currently lacks sufficient funds to carry out all of the restoration projects on its to-do list. It envisions the rental program becoming a new revenue source to cover the expenses.

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