Exploration of Houston, A Museum, and Japanese Art

Sep 19 2012

As I travel for work, I’ve found it’s easy to spend a week in a place and barely leave my hotel room. After 8 hours of standing in front of a class, actively teaching them, I don’t have much energy to explore.

So, I spend half an hour Sunday evening planning a small excursion for some evening that week.

Houston was a challenge. I stayed in the business district, where everything closes at 5:00 to 6:00pm. But after some digging, I found the Museum of Fine Arts Houston was open late on Thursday.

Hokusai - View of Fuji

One of Hokusai’s “36 Views of Mount Fuji”

Even better, on the Thursday I was there, the museum was presenting a talk by Dr. Kirsten Cather on Japanese art and culture, titled “From Genji to Godzilla.” Perfect!

I knew I was destined to go when I mentioned this to one of my students, and he exclaimed, “Oh, you can take the train!” Turns out that the light rail that passed right by my hotel went right next to the museum.

So, with some trepidation, I used the light rail. I’m always nervous about taking public transportation in a city I’ve never visited before. I’m afraid I’ll get arrested for having the wrong ticket, that I’ll somehow stand out as being obviously not a native and attract the scrutiny of some prejudiced cop. It’s childish, but real.

Fortunately, I had no problems. Bought a ticket at a kiosk, boarded the train, and got off at the Museum District several hours before the talk was scheduled to begin.

The Museum of Fine Art Houston is a beautiful place, with plenty of space to show off its large collection. It showcases pieces from Greece to the modern day, from Korea to South America. The placards are clear, if relatively brief, and all the pieces are very accessible. It felt more like a science museum than an art museum.

To my delight, Dr. Cather was warm, easy to talk to, and very interesting. She began by highlighting the Japanese tendency towards imitation, then gently led the audience to an understanding that this was intentional, and a trend to be celebrated rather than derided as “unoriginal.” As a bonus, she showed us and compared trailers for the original Japanese Godzilla (Gorjira) and the American edit, as well as a fascinating sequence from Sukiyaki Western Django.

Afterwards, I was able to chat briefly with the speaker about Japanese culture and anime, and recommend serial experiments lain, which she promised to watch.

A pretty perfect evening.

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