Two Japanese Lanterns – Rediscovered

September 3, 2019

Stoner Courtyard, date unknown (after 1931). Both of the Japanese lanterns are visible. Museum archives image number, 13468.

The cover story in the latest issue of Expedition is dedicated to two important Japanese lanterns whose significance has only recently been fully appreciated. Nine years ago I came across a metal column in a storage room that had an inscription on it but no accession number.  Curious I transcribed it and sent it off to a Curator to see if they could help me translate it.  It turned out that, according to the inscription, the piece had been made for someone named Keisho-in (the mother of the shogun Tsunayoshi Tokugawa) and placed at her mausoleum at Zōjō-ji temple in 1705 by Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu. I realized then that the object was actually part of a full sized funerary lantern.

But how did it get here and who donated it? I went through the records in our database looking for any mention of a lantern dated to 1705 but couldn’t find a match. A curator in the Mediterranean section mentioned that during a recent trip to our photo archives she had seen a photo of the museum with a lantern outside. Maybe this was the one I was looking for?

I quickly made an appointment in archives to see if the photo had a date associated with it or any clues about when it might have come into the museum.  The first thing I noticed upon seeing the photograph was that there were actually two lanterns, not just one, and that the date for that photograph was circa 1954. This was progress. Two Japanese lanterns entered the museum and had been placed at the Trescher entrance to the museum sometime before 1954.

Stoner Courtyard shortly after completion in 1929, the lions and lanterns aren’t there yet. Museum Archives, 140753.

I wondered if there was a way to establish when exactly they had been placed there. Going through photos of the outside facade of the building in our photo archives I was able to locate a photo dated to 1929 shorty after the new administrative wing had been built. And surprise, no lanterns!

I was narrowing in on them. Sometime between 1929 and 1954 the lanterns were put on display in the Stoner Courtyard. I found out that there used to be aerial photography of the Philadelphia area by a company called the Aero Service Corporation. I thought maybe if I mined those photos I could potentially find one that was dated to sometime between 1929 – 1954 showing the lanterns. Eventually I found one in the University Archives Digital Image collection dated to circa 1932. My date range had narrowed significantly, 1929 – 1932. Maybe they had come into the museum in that time period?

With a little more work I found another image in the museum archives that narrowed it down even further (see the photo at the top of this blog post). The photograph has the lanterns outside the museum with Convention Hall visible in the background. The auditorium section of that building was built in 1931 so I could surmise that the lanterns must have been moved sometime during 1931 or 1932. Armed with a date, I blocked out a week in my schedule to start going through archival records from 1931 – 1932 to see if I could find a pair of lanterns that had been given to the museum around that time frame. I had also gone through an image archive trying to find any sign of the lanterns before then – it was possible they had been placed somewhere else outside the museum before 1931. I put together quite a cache of aerial photographs of the museum using Convention Hall and Franklin Field as search terms. Since the museum in sandwiched between them more often then not, I got a hit.

The two Japanese lanterns outside the museum’s Trescher entrance circa 1954. Archives image number: 255435

When I got to archives the archivist gave me a digitized version of our board minutes (which go back to the late 1800’s) and included information about new acquisitions. I did a quick search on the word “lantern” and to my surprise I got a hit! In 1919, a Mrs. Richard Waln Meirs had given two Japanese lanterns to the museum and they had been placed outside the museum’s auditorium on 34th street! The mystery was solved!

But who was Mrs. Richard Waln Meirs and how did she acquire the lanterns? Where were the lanterns before they were placed outside the museum? I will explore the answers to these questions in a future post.

For more information about the lanterns in this post see “The Tale of the Tokugawa Artifacts: Japanese Funerary Lanterns at the Penn Museum” by Yoko Nishimura in the Spring 2019 issue of Expedition Magazine.