Chihiro Art Museum

Michiko Matsukata

Chihiro Art Museum Azumino

Chihiro Art Museum

4 Chome-7-2 Shimoshakujii, Nerima City, Tokyo 177-0042, Japan

Japanese Museums Association Award 2019


The First Picture Book Museum in the World



Chihiro Art Museum, considered to be the world's first picture book museum in the world, was established in Tokyo in September 1977. At the beginning of its history was the presence of the artist Chihiro Iwasaki. Chihiro is a representative picture book artist in Japan who developed a new type of picture book treating picture and text as one and excelled in portraying the delicate inner feelings of children. On August 8th, 1974, she passed away at the age of 55.

Few months after her death, a small exhibition showing her works was held in a gallery in Tokyo. Fans waited in a long line to see their favorite artist's original illustrations. Though Chihiro was popular and talented, no museums at the time showed interest in exhibiting picture book illustrations, which they did not regard as works of art. Chihiro herself considered picture book to be art, thus her bereaved family decided to build a museum by themselves where they can exhibit Chihiro's works as well as works of prominent picture book artists.

In 1975, Chihiro Iwasaki Memorial Foundation was set up for this purpose. Hearing it is costly and risky to build a museum without public funding, the initial idea was to build a "minimal" house-like museum beside the artist's home with the family members and volunteers working as staffs. The Foundation called for donations, to which over a thousand fans responded. Chihiro being an artist of books, the majority of her copyright was donated to the foundation by the family creating another source of fund for the foundation. Sales from the numerous new books and items with her illustrations also were indispensable.

On September 11th, 1977, Chihiro Museum of Picture Book Art opened its door. The staffs guessed to have about ten visitors per day. They were surprised when more than 400 visitors entered and crowded the small museum on the first day. In this way, the museum, with two exhibition rooms, a library, and a repository started in the quiet neighborhood of western Tokyo. Exhibitions of Chihiro's original illustrations and other picture book artists attracted many visitors, convincing the museum staffs that their concept was right.
As time passed, the museum gradually "grew". Its collection is one example. When the museum was founded, there were no studies which situated picture book in the context of art history. The son of Chihiro who also was the curator of Chihiro Art Museum began research on picture books, and while attending picture book illustration exhibitions in Europe as a jury, he learned that the situation is the same in other countries as well. The museum built a policy to collect, preserve, research and exhibit distinguished picture book illustration as cultural and artistic heritage, to which picture book artists worldwide cooperated, developing the collection.

Furthermore, to widen the concept of picture books, which is often only seen as children's books, the museum aspired to show the history of picture books as one of the artistic expressions. The collection of historical materials started, including the Book of the Dead from ancient Egypt, Japanese picture scrolls from the 17th century, and European illustrated books from the end of the 19th century.


Exhibit room of Chihiro Art Museum Tokyo. Photo by Shiho Otsuki


The growth of the collection required an extension of space. In April 1997, twenty years after the founding of the museum in Tokyo, Chihiro Art Museum Azumino opened in Nagano prefecture, about two hundred kilometers from Tokyo. The Azumino area, home of Chihiro's parents, is rich with nature and a park with 50,000 square meters of land surrounds the museum.

Currently, the Chihiro Art Museum Collection consists of 27,200 artworks by 207 artists from 34 countries and regions, and the number of its historical collection amount to over 1000 items.

The establishment of the Chihiro Art Museum and its success led to the opening of many picture book museums in Japan, and public art museums began holding exhibitions of picture book illustrations. Outside Japan, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art opened in the USA, and interest in such a museum was also present in Asia.

The museum's range of activities also widened over the years. Exhibitions which change several times per year focus on myriad themes or artists. Artists from China, Croatia, Brazil, Australia, Russia, and many other countries were featured. In 2018, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Chihiro's birth, series of special exhibitions with the collaboration of contemporary artists from different fields such as poetry, photography, design, and media art took place.

As the saying goes: "Think globally, act locally." The two museums are strongly tied to the local community. Chihiro Art Museum Tokyo holds "playtime with children's songs" with a lecturer inviting toddlers with their parents from the region to enjoy a relaxing time with songs and play in the museum. Also, the museum welcomes and encourages children's first visit to the museum in their life, preparing special facilities and programs. Chihiro Art Museum Azumino has a special tie with the local school. Every summer, students from the Matsukawa Middle School participate in a program as volunteers to teach museum visitors young and old Chihiro's watercolor techniques or give a guided tour. This unique program has continued for18 years, and graduates of volunteers sometimes revisit the museum as interns or teachers.

Our activities are not limited to the terrain of the two museums: we hold exhibitions cooperating with different museums in Japan so that people in other parts of the country can have a chance to see our museum's collection. Moreover, exhibitions featuring Chihiro and picture book artists of Japan were also shown in Asia including China, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, and Singapore. We believe that exhibitions, lectures, and workshops in our neighboring countries have helped enrich the picture book culture on both sides.

Chihiro Art Museum Tokyo

We hope that through our exhibitions and activities, people understand the importance of picture book illustrations as a form of art and appreciate them, and witnessing the excellence of illustrations from different countries and cultures will lead to building respect and peace between countries.

While I am writing this text, many countries of the world are facing a human rights crisis with the pandemic. Chihiro Art Museum, through the works of the artists from the world and their picture books, wishes to offer a kind of spiritual support for people's everyday life and to create occasions and places where people can reflect and think about things which are forgotten or are overlooked.

In 2019, Chihiro Art Museum was chosen as one of the two winners of the Japanese Association of Museums Award 2019 from among 1,150 member institutions. This new award is given to museums which have largely contributed to the promotion of Japanese museums and have produced prominent outcomes that serve as models for other museums. Also a year ago, our museum was honored the Carle Honors Bridge Award which "recognizes individuals and organizations who have found inspiring ways to bring the art of the picture book to larger audiences through work in other fields."

As a pioneer of museums dedicated to picture book art, we hope to continue working for a better world.


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