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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Japan's museums struggle

Jun. 14, 2017

Museums have various roles to play, including collecting and preserving items, conducting research, and organizing exhibits. But an NHK survey shows that budget cuts and personnel shortages are hampering museums' efforts to complete their missions. Even one of the most prestigious museums in Japan is struggling.

The Tokyo National Museum has an impressive collection of precious artworks. Over the years, it has acquired more than 110,000 cultural artifacts with pieces from Japan, China and other parts of Asia.

Artworks need to be rotated regularly as they can be damaged if they are put on display for long periods.

Each item is carefully checked and any necessary repairs or preventive measures are taken.

But, so far, just over 10,000 of the museum's pieces have been looked at. That's less than one tenth of the entire collection.

The reason for this is the museum lacks both financial and human resources.

The number of staff and state subsidies have fallen over the years. Currently, there are only 6 regular employees dedicated to conservation work.

The museum has been using contract workers to fill the gaps. But there are concerns that the necessary skills won't be handed down, as such workers leave within 3 to 5 years.

"As a person working at a museum, failing to preserve cultural assets for future generations because of insufficient labor or funds would be a breach of public trust," says Ken Tomisaka, Supervisor of Conservative Technology at the Tokyo National Museum.

The NHK survey targeted about 200 national and municipal museums across the country. The results showed two-thirds of them are falling short of their restoration or conservation goals.

The survey also found that regional museums, whose budgets are far smaller than national ones, are in an even more precarious situation.

The Hamamatsu City History Museum in central Japan is one institution that's having difficulty managing its artifacts.

The museum's curator, Masaya Kurihara, says the collection keeps on growing as people donate personal objects.

The museum has about 160,000 items in its collection. The bulk of them are in temporary storage in other parts of the city.

In all, the museum has 13 storage facilities. One of them is so far away, it takes more than 2 hours to get to by car. An unused elementary school building is now serving as a storage facility.

As the number of storehouses has grown, so has the time and effort it takes managing the collection.

"We need to at least secure more space to store the items, so that they won't be lost. It can't be helped," says Kurihara.

There are 5 curators at the museum. They must inspect storehouses, research and organize materials, plan exhibits, and provide educational services. It's a demanding workload.

Experts warn that many museums have gotten to the point where they are simply unable to do the basic work.

"The work is being left to individual curators. But it has gone beyond the limits of personal efforts," says Yoshiaki Kanayama, a Professor at Hosei University.

One museum that's struggling to come to grips with its manpower and budget shortage has turned to local citizens for help.

The museum is located in Fukuoka Prefecture, in southwestern Japan.

On display are specimens of local fauna and historical artifacts.

The museum is supported by teams of local volunteers. Currently, there are 66 people registered to do the work.

They not only serve as museum guides but also help the curators organize materials.

The curators say that thanks to the volunteers, they can now devote more time to collecting materials and on research.

"A museum's task is to collect materials, preserve them, catalog them and research them before putting them on public display. If the 4 tasks are carried out without fail, then it's possible to obtain a good outcome," says Kyoichiro Ueda, Director General at Kitakyushu Museum of Natural History and Human History.

Expectations are high for museums as they are often at the top of the list of things to do for foreign visitors coming to Japan.

With a rising awareness that museums are important assets, both the public and the government need to work together and possibly even share the costs to maintain them.