Archival materials of the Lane Collection
Archival materials of the Lane Collection

It is not every day that museum visitors get the opportunity to engage hands-on with ancient treasures in an underground vault. Through a collaboration with the Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA), students from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Department of East Asian Languages & Literatures in the College of Arts, Languages & Letters were allowed the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tour HoMA’s Lane Collection vault, which contains one of the finest sets of Japanese woodblock prints and manuscripts on Oʻahu.

Collectible miniature books
Collectible miniature books, also known as a mamehon (“bean-sized books”)

“Visiting the Lane Collection at HoMA was a special experience that has left a lasting impression on me,” said student Sarah Domingo. “Seeing those books and works of art from the Edo period made me feel connected to history and I was able to get a better understanding of the historic and cultural significance these books have.”

Four undergraduate and five graduate students in Professor Pier Carlo Tommasi’s “JPN 461: Introduction to Classical Japanese” and “JPN 641: Traditional Literary Theory” classes visited HoMA on March 31. There, they were guided through the marvels and mysteries of the Lane Collection by HoMA Research Associate Kiyoe Minami.

“Activities like this are important for undergraduate students to better understand what it means to do archival research,” said Tommasi. “They also make the learning process much more effective and enjoyable.”

People looking at artifacts
Students comparing handwritten and printed sources

At the museum, Tommasi mixed up the students, splitting them into two groups as the Lane vault only fits up to eight people at one time. Once in the vault, students had the rare opportunity to view the art pieces.

“Unlike looking at art works in a glass case at the museum or viewing the images of works online, there is much to be gained from looking at the actual works up closely,” said Minami. “For example, the weight of the book, the feel of the paper, the difference in the ink condition, etc. I would be glad if the students find it enjoyable to study Japanese literature and culture through this experience at the Lane vault.”

In the vault, the undergraduate students also gave short presentations on books that they had studied previously for the “Archive Project”—an assignment in Tommasi’s fall 2022 JPN 461 class, in which students had each been assigned a book from the Lane Collection to digitally browse and analyze. At the end of the semester, they submitted a written report along with an English translation of the title to be added to the HoMA database. The field trip to the Lane vault was a full-circle moment for these students, who were able to view the physical books that they had previously only studied in digital formats.

“Seeing the pieces in the Lane Collection in person and up close made me realize the craftsmanship and dedication that went into creating these books and art. It is amazing how they are still in great shape after all these years,” said Domingo. “What was most impactful and meaningful for me was being able to see the book, published in 1805, in person that I had researched online about last semester, as it has brought my studies to life.”