Curating ‘A Good Type’: Japanese ‘Art’ Photographs in an Anthropological Archive
In this chapter, I want to offer a personal reflection on some of the assumptions, challenges, and practices that emerged whilst organizing ‘A Good Type’: Tourism and Science in Early Japanese Photographs. The exhibition was held at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge, Massachusetts (exhibited October 2007 – April 2008). It considered photographs selected from a group of approximately 1,300 nineteenth-century Japanese photographs, part of the museum’s vast archive of photographs, numbering more than 500,000 images. There were two underlying principles for the exhibition: first, a focus on how materiality can provide access to new understandings of historical photographs, and second, how the meanings of these photographs changed as they were transformed from tourist souvenirs into anthropological data. The exhibition took its name in part from a handwritten note on the mount of a photograph of a woman dressed as a geisha, declaring her to be ‘a good type’, or an exemplar of a certain category (in this case, of Japanese women), rather than an individual person. By considering the photographs as objects that moved through time and space, rather than merely as images to look at, ‘A Good Type’ questioned the kind and quality of cultural and historical work that the photographs were asked to perform in their original contexts and beyond, including in their iterations as archival and exhibition objects.