KYOTO--After years of neglect, a fine collection of fossils went on display today as Kyoto University opened a $50 million museum. It's part of a trend sweeping Japan's campuses: Seven university museums have been established in the past 4 years, with five more on the drawing boards.
For decades, Japanese university scientists have traveled around the world collecting everything from fossils and mineral samples to pottery shards and plant specimens. But after being shipped home, the material all too often gathered dust in basements and odd corners around campus. Its value was lost not only to researchers but also to professors who wanted their students to get a hands-on view of research. "I had to send the students to a big museum somewhere to see good specimens," says Kyoto University paleontologist Terufumi Ohno.
Grand opening. Kyoto University's Terufumi Ohno stands in front of the new University Museum. Its opening is part of a move to showcase valuable academic collections like the exhibit "Bone" at the University of Tokyo. (right).
The problem is widespread. "A lot of resources have been wasting away," says Yoshihide Akatsuka, deputy director of the Scientific Research Institutes Division of the science and education ministry, which estimates that such academic storehouses contain up to 90% of the 25 million scientifically valuable samples in Japan.
Now that's changing. For now, the museums are typically setting up operations in temporary quarters, taking over unused corners of existing buildings; Kyoto University is the first to get government funds for a new building, with proper exhibit and storage facilities. But the science and education ministry is providing funding for other museums, too, and ministry officials are cautiously optimistic that they can find the money for more new buildings over time.
The universities hope that the new displays will be popular with the public. And the increased access for researchers is already paying off. Archaeologists from the University of Tokyo, for example, recently used jade samples from the museum's collection to prove that the jade in Korean ornaments that are up to 5000 years old must have come from Japan. That conclusion supports theories that traders crossed the Japan Sea earlier than historical records indicate.
There are sizable challenges for the new museums. A governmentwide campaign to reduce the number of employees has forced universities to operate their museums with skeleton crews. Still, Ohno and others hope that the opening of the Kyoto museum signals a new era of openness and support for scientific collections.