Museum’s Revered Ainsworth Collection Travels to Exhibitions in Japan

March 7, 2019

Megan Harding

Japanese woodblock print
Women Washing and Drying Lengths of Cloth in a Garden beside the Sumida River, a color woodblock print by Torii Kiyonaga, 1788. The print is from the Mary A. Ainsworth collection.
Photo credit: Allen Memorial Art Museun

Two hundred Japanese prints, 189 frames, 13 crates, and 6,481 miles. That’s what it will take for a selection of works from the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s (AMAM) celebrated Mary A. Ainsworth Collection of Japanese Prints to travel to Japan this year. The selected works will be on exhibition at museums in the cities of Chiba, Shizuoka, and Osaka from mid-April through September 2019.

This extraordinary undertaking marks the first time such an extensive portion of the Ainsworth collection has been loaned since Ainsworth bequeathed it to the Allen in 1950. It will garner greater renown for the museum and for these works, in part through publication of the first full-color catalogue of the collection.

“We rarely let the Ainsworth collection travel,” says Joan L. Danforth Curator of Asian Art Kevin Greenwood. When the exhibitions in Japan conclude, the ukiyo-e woodblock prints will return to Oberlin, and some of them will be on view in a spring 2020 exhibition at the Allen.

Picture of Japanese woodblock print, warriors on sailing ship
The Ghosts of the Slain Taira Warriors Attacking Yoshitsune and His Men as They Cross Daimotsu Bay, color woodblock print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1850.

Impetus for the tour came from ukiyo-e print specialist Masako Tanabe, a curator at the Chiba City Museum of Art, located outside Tokyo. Greenwood says Tanabe has wanted to produce an exhibition on the Ainsworth prints since seeing them in a 1984 catalogue of the collection by Roger S. Keyes.

In October 2016, Tanabe and four other Japanese curators visited the Allen for a week with the goal of viewing each of the 1,564 works in the collection. “They were impressed by the condition of the prints,” Greenwood recalls, “and it was a treat to spend time with experts who have such deep knowledge of the ukiyo-e tradition.”

By comparing the Ainsworth prints to books and photographs of ukiyo-e prints the curators had brought with them from Japan, they learned new information about several works in the collection. For example, they found that an AMAM print by Suzuki Harunobu—an early composition featuring a Shinto deity—is the only known impression of that print. Greenwood hopes the tour will encourage further study of these works by scholars of Japanese prints.

The museum committed the staff resources needed to make the tour possible after Greenwood visited the three exhibition venues in Japan in February 2017.

Picture of museum staff member preparing frames
Head preparator Kendall Christian builds Ohio maple frames for the prints. Photo credit: Selina Bartlett

The monumental task of framing and matting the 200 Ainsworth works, which are stored flat in the museum to conserve space, is already complete. Head preparator Kendall Christian built 189 frames from Ohio maple (some multi-sheet compositions were combined into a single frame), as well as a second backing frame made of pine, for durability.

Assistant preparator Michael Reynolds was responsible for matting each print and sealing them within the dust-free environment of the frame. Using a magnifying glass, Assistant Registrar Selina Bartlett made detailed condition reports for each work and about half were re-photographed. Registrar Lucille Stiger organized the loan agreements, transportation, and insurance for the collection’s journey overseas.

Thanks to the efforts of many, the ukiyo-e prints collected by Oberlin alumna Mary Ainsworth ’89 will return to Japan to be appreciated by a large public.

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