These days there are seemingly endless digitized materials to look at online, whether searching for the contents of major public libraries, museums, or university collections. But we can’t always get a well-rounded understanding of an object just from the metadata on a website. If you’re interested in taking a deeper dive into some fascinating materials on early modern Japanese history (and beyond), The World of the Japanese Illustrated Book, a digital resource by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art on their Pulverer Collection, is an excellent place to start.
Spanning the 17th to 20th centuries, the Pulverer Collection features over 2,000 volumes of rare Japanese illustrated books, one of the most comprehensive collections of its kind outside of Japan. An incredible number of these books have been made into high resolution images with full meta data and are searchable through the website.
The site offers four main features, Essays, Search, Resources, and My Research. The Essays section offers half a dozen peer-reviewed examinations of different aspects of the collection by a wide variety of scholars. Whether you’re seeking reflections on Hokusai as an illustrator or more technical information on the woodblock printing process, these essays are a rich deep-dive into the digitized Pulverer materials.
These essays are also complemented by a series of videos not only by Gerhard Pulverer himself but also diverse specialists, such as cartoonists, curators, and artists, who bring new perspectives to these historical works from cultural, collection, and production perspectives. No doubt any of these essays or interviews would be helpful additions to classrooms or just enjoyable on their own for learning more about the materials shared on the Smithsonian’s website.
The Search section provides not only subject, arts, title, and keyword based explorations of the contents of the Pulverer Collection, but also a visualization (seen below) to browse the collection contents by date.
This interactive view of the collection is a helpful way to examine the collection’s scope, hone in on specific works during an artist’s period of activity, or simply browse for particularly popular topics in a given year or years.
The Resources area is fairly straight forward, providing acknowledgment and contributor biographies along with a helpful glossary of Japanese terms (including kanji) used in the specialist essays and metadata. Researchers or students will also find a particularly useful bibliography of works referenced, organized by both general interest and specific topics/artists. There is also a My Research page that can be used to add notes to or bookmark specific essays and works, though it is only available after the creation of an account.
For further explanation of the Pulverer Collection you can also see this article by curator Kit Brooks, which discusses more in detail about the collection’s origins and highlights. Casual readers, students, and researchers alike will find lots to explores and enjoy in The World of the Japanese Illustrated Book.