Varve Museum (Nenkou Museum)

Takeshi Nakagawa

Research Manager, Varve Museum

Varve Museum (Nenkou Museum)

122-12-1, Torihama, Wakasa town, Fukui Prefecture Japan. 919-1331

Japanese Association of Museums Award 2021






The Varve Museum is a unique museum featuring lake sediment. "Varve" refers to the sediment with characteristic annually laminated layers piled up in the lake bed. One new layer made up of light and dark colored stripes is formed each year and this striped pattern is piled up alternately. The color difference arises from different types of sediment depending on the season. Lake Suigetsu, Japan, accommodates varves that have accumulated over the last 70,000 years, which are the key to understanding geological age and the palaeoenvironment. In 2012, the number of layers established by scientists was adopted as the international standard time scale for radiocarbon dating. The varves are also keeping detailed records of past climate changes, which can be reconstructed from micro remains among the sediment. Following the achievement of the scientists who provided internationally acclaimed research results, the local government of Fukui Prefecture decided to construct the Varve Museum in collaboration with the scientists involved, with the aim of promoting the research and educating the public about the academic value of the Lake Suigetsu varves. In the Museum, the breathtaking 50m-long gallery exhibits the entirety of the Suigetsu varves, and takes visitors on a journey of time tracing back to 70,000 years ago. Not only for its academic significance, but also for its oral exhibition commentary by the museum navigators that conveys the passion of the researchers in a dramatic way, and its collaborative projects with the neighbouring museums, the Varve Museum has received high praise since its opening and has contributed to regional development.

Lake Suigetsu


A History of Steady Research and its Philosophy

It is perhaps highly unusual that the award was given to the very young museum, which only opened in 2018. However, in order to precisely explain our project and the people who brought enormous passion into it, it would be necessary to start with a history of research dating back some 30 years ago. A convincing enough reason may be found in it. The varves were discovered in 1991 during a borehole survey led by an environmental archaeologist Yoshinori Yasuda. At the time, the town of Wakasa, where the Varve Museum is located now, was not yet known for its varves but was famous as a Neolithic archaeological site called Torihama shell midden. The varves were discovered by chance by the researchers attempting to reconstruct the vegetation of the past that the Neolithic people had lived in. The discovery marked the beginning of a full-fledged varve research in Japan.

It was a young researcher in the 1990s, Hiroyuki Kitagawa, who first thought that this discovery might enable the construction of a standard time scale. He spent five years counting the total number of layers of the sediment and dating the leaf fossils. Unfortunately, due to the incompleteness of the samples themselves used in the analysis, the results of his research were not immediately adopted as an international standard. However, Kitagawa's ideas were passed onto the next generation of an international research team led by Takeshi Nakagawa (the author) and saw the light of day.

The philosophy of the project, which Kitagawa sowed the seeds for, is to produce the best possible data without any compromise. To achieve this, Nakagawa and his team first tried to collect a complete series of samples with no missing layers. The challenge was successfully met in 2006, but the project came to fruition over the next six years of steady research. We recounted all of the varves over 45 metres consisting of 70,000 layers and measured radiocarbon dates in 800 leaf fossils. The “Suigetsu Data” published in 2011 has finally been adopted by IntCal, an international radiocarbon calibration model, and is regarded as the most reliable dating data available. In the latest version of IntCal updated in 2020, the data we have provided remains important, providing reliable ages for the wide range of research fields as diverse as archaeology and geology.

45-metre long Varve Gallery


Exhibiting the Essential Beauty of Science

The study of varves is a very specialised and humble subject, which, according to common sense, is not something that many people would find interesting. What we are exhibiting is not a dinosaur, a fighter plane or a spacecraft, it is just mud. In considering the exhibition scheme, we argued again and again about how to make a show out of it. In the end, we decided to be as straightforward as possible about the essential beauty of scientific research, that is the charm of the varves themselves, the charm of the people who worked on them, and the charm of the world that can be seen through them. On the contrary, we have boldly omitted entertainment elements that are not essential to the varves. This is an extremely risky decision for a museum. Nevertheless, we bet on the fact that you will be able to feel the charm of the varves, which we are convinced is there.

The most symbolic embodiment of our exhibition philosophy is the 45-metre long Varve Gallery. Here, 100 borehole cores with varves dug out of Lake Suigetsu are displayed as giant thin sections, which we call "varve-stained-glass". Thus, we have realised an exhibition space where you can see the entire history of the world, i.e. the past 70,000 years inscribed on the varves, which researchers have challenged and revealed. Considering the physical lifespan of a single human being, 70,000 years is an unimaginably tremendous amount of time. In this Museum, such an invisible scale of time can be seen through the varves.

Our other commitment is that it should be a living person who plays the role of conveying the fascination of the varves and the passion of the researchers, not a lot of text panels or the latest electronic equipment. The Varves Museum is staffed by exhibition guides, or 'navigators', who are familiar with varves and provide visitors with detailed explanations. In the four years since the museum opened, we have found that difficult, cutting-edge research is better conveyed in human voices than in written text, which is more effective in promoting visitor understanding. The fact that interpersonal communication by navigators is welcomed by visitors is evidenced by the high ratings on social media and review websites.

Finally, we would like to add that our commitment has a positive synergistic effect on the local community. Local confectionery shops and general businesses have developed products featuring the varves, which are now becoming a speciality of the town. In addition to the permanent exhibitions mentioned here, we also organise a special exhibition every year in collaboration with the neighbouring town museum, which has had the effect of increasing the number of visitors to the Museum by 250%. None of them could have been imagined at the dawn of varve research in the 1990s.

There is only the "real thing" in the Varve Museum. The reason why the museum has received far more recognition than all of us had expected is that visitors to the museum and local residents resonate with the charm of the "real thing". In this sense, we are grateful for our success and the award that the people have brought to us.


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