Site: National Museum of Ethnology
10-1 Sentri Expo Park
Suita, Osaka 565, Japan

Date Visited: 27 March 1998

WTEC Attendess: T. Ager (report author), B. Croft, L. Goldberg, M. Shamos,R.D. Shelton Host: Prof. Sugita Shigeharu, Deputy Director-General of theMuseum


The National Museum of Ethnology was established in 1974 as aninter-university research institute under the Ministry of Education, Science,Sports, and Culture (Monbusho). It has been designated as a center ofexcellence in the field of ethnological studies. Its mission is

The museum staff includes 75 professors, 21 staff members in the informationand documentation center and 34 members in the administration department.


Research Institute

In addition to research by resident scholars, the museum conducts symposiaand joint projects, hosts visiting scholars, publishes four periodicals andthree series of occasional papers or reports.

Graduate University

Japan's Graduate University for Advanced Studies, School of CulturalStudies, has its Regional Studies and Comparative Studies departments locatedat the museum. About 18 PhDs have been graduated since this function began in1989.

Information Center

The museum maintains a library of about 460,000 volumes, 13,000 boundvolumes of periodicals, 62,000 audio-visual or multimedia items, and 216,000artifacts. Virtually all the books, reports, periodicals, and artifacts arecataloged online. About 60% of the artifacts have been imaged, and this imagedata is included in the online asset management system. Currently all newartifact accessions are imaged as part of the acquisition and catalogingprocess.


The permanent exhibition of 11,000 items is about 4% of the artifactcollection, and is open to the public six days a week. A Special ExhibitionHall is used for temporary exhibitions, often including rare materials loanedfrom other museums. The exhibition halls have many multimedia andcomputer-based kiosks. Especially interesting is the Videoteque, a 45-seatvideo-on-demand system, currently supported by a robotic laser-disk librarycontaining about 1,600 disks.

Further information about the museum's programs, operations, and exhibitionscan be found on the Web site listed above.


Prof. Sugita hosted the group and gave an overview of the museum functionsand operations, as summarized above. The annual budget of the museum is 4.774billion (1997) of which 550 million is for computer functions; procurement(399 million) and computer leases (150 million). The 1998 Japanese governmentfunding for the digital-museum project consisted of 450 million (whichincluded money for special hardware (200 million) and contents (100 million)and computer leases (150 million)).

The museum makes extensive use of technology including the online catalogand asset management system for artifacts, books, periodicals, and specialcollections such as the Human Relations Area Files (about 863,000 test pages).Virtually 100% of the museum's holdings are cataloged online. But the mostinteresting aspect is that for the artifact collection, a program of using 3Dscanning, imaging, and measurement is applied to every new artifact (subject toscanning size limitations) that is acquired.

Three 3D scanning devices are in operation. The smallest is used for objectsin which the largest dimension is less than 40 cm. The largest can handleobjects of maximum dimension 1 meter. This large device can also image theobject from all directions in 1/2 degree increments, providing more than ampledata for various VR and 3D representation techniques. Typically, however, anobject is imaged from front, back, left, right, and top. Such scanninggenerates about 12 megabytes of image data per artifact. The image devices arealso capable of measuring the object's overall height, width, depth, and canmap its contours as well. About 100 objects per day can be cataloged by thethree imaging systems. One operator for all three is sufficient. The museumdoes joint research on 3D imaging with NAIST. The museum's online catalogallows search by subject term (the objects are cataloged using a controlledvocabulary). Query by image content is not supported in the artifact catalog.The catalog and other museum databases are shared among some other researchinstitutes and universities, but are not available to the general public overthe Internet. Prof. Sugita expressed the desire to extend more of the museum'sonline resource to the public, including some online exhibition capability. Themuseum is working with IBM Japan, the British Museum, and Cornell University ona Global Digital Museum Project (see IBM Tokyo Research Laboratory site visitreport).

The museum's video collection is almost 20 years old. It began with cassettetapes, and was converted to laser disk. Another conversion to DVD during thenext 2-3 years is being planned. The first conversion from cassettes to laserdisk cost 600 million. The conversion to DVD is estimated to be about halfthat. These format conversions and digital material refresh costs are a concernfor all institutions that undertake digitization. Although the actual copyingfrom one format to another is routine, one can expect that the transition froman analog format such as laser disk brings requirements for new distributiontechnologies, and affords new opportunities for cataloging, indexing, search,and cross-linking with other digital materials.

The museum is participating in an IBM customer or user-group initiativecalled the IBM Asia-Pacific Digital Library Consortium. The WTEC team wasinvited to a luncheon with the IBM consortium while both were at the museum. Inaddition to the National Museum of Ethnology, libraries or museums from Taiwan,Korea, China, and Hong Kong, are participating in the IBM consortium. Althoughthe consortium consists of IBM digital library and content managementcustomers, its focus is on larger shared problems, including especially thedevelopment of standards and accepted practices for interoperability of digitalcollections.


The WTEC team that visited the National Museum of Ethnology was impressed bythe scope of the digitization process for museum artifacts. The team membersalso felt that the utilization of multimedia resources in the exhibition areasof the museum was advanced and very comprehensive. Utilization of the museum'sdigital assets on the Internet is not as far along, but the museum indicatedthat greater use of Internet is under discussion.

The museum's twenty-year history of utilizing advanced computer technologyfor museum operations, internal research programs, and public exhibitions hasclearly been instrumental in achieving its current advanced utilization oftechnologies for managing digital information. The team agreed that theNational Museum of Ethnology was an excellent example of an advanced,technologically sophisticated museum.

Published: February 1999; WTECHyper-Librarian