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Samurai exhibit at Fleming Museum

Burlington, Vermont – January 11, 2011

Some rare Samurai pieces are on exhibit at UVM's Fleming Museum for the first time in decades. The exhibit is called Shadows of the Samurai and features armor and weapons. But there are some things about the samurai that may surprise you, as Reporter Kristin Carlson found out on recent tour.

Kristin Carlson: So why did UVM want to do something on the samurai?

Margaret Tamulonis/Manager of Collections & Exhibitions for Fleming Museum: We were interested in doing this because first of all the Fleming Museum has a great collection of Asian and Japanese objects.

Carlson: Well, I see you have what looks like a full suit.

Tamulonis: Yes and this actually has been in the collection for a few decades and I don't remember the last time it was on view but we were particularly excited to get it out here.

Carlson: And what does this say about the samurai? This is exquisite craftsmanship.

Tamulonis: Yes it is and it is actually a tradition of craftsmanship that continues to now. There are actually families that make samurai armor and that is a tradition that is passed on through the families and this particular samurai suit of armor was probably used more for ceremonial purposes than on the battlefield.

Carlson: What is it about samurai that you think people find so intriguing still to this day?

Tamulonis: I think part of it is the art and craftsmanship in the armor and other things associated with samurai warriors-- the fact that they are featured so much in movies and still are a huge part of Japanese popular culture.

Carlson: So what exactly is a samurai? Because people may have a perception of what one is that might not hold true.

Tamulonis: Right, exactly.

Carlson: They are a little mythic sometimes.

Tamulonis: I think there are a lot of misperceptions about the samurai particularly in American culture, perhaps in other cultures as well. They did have a reputation for being fierce warriors but many of them were also practicing Buddhists who really believed in Buddhist philosophies and there are interesting ways in which they both overlap a bit. They also were fiercely loyal to each other and to the people that they served and fought for and they were a tradition in Japan that continued through the 1860s.

Carlson: Why are their costumes so ornate? Were these really the most respected people of their time?

Tamulonis: Their costumes are ornate because they were part of the nobility, but also because they were an easily identifiable class and there were laws that dictated what they could wear and what they could carry; what kind of armor they would wear, what kind of weapons they would carry.

Carlson: Do you have any idea what this means?

Tamulonis: That is a devil-- an oni demon. That would have been identified with the warrior who wore this. Imagine-- this is ceremonial-- but imagine if you encountered someone with a demon like that on his helmet as he approached you on a battlefield.

Carlson: It would be intense.

Tamulonis: Yes.

Carlson: I see you also have some samurai swords.

Tamulonis: Yes, most of these are from the 19th century, so they would largely have been ceremonial but the swords up here are especially fine examples from our collection of samurai swords. The lower one is really interesting because it is a sword that was distributed to Japanese warriors in World War II and can sort of allow us to think about how that samurai tradition and the samurai warriors were still being used by the Japanese military.

Carlson: How did UVM wind up with this great collection of samurai pieces?

Tamulonis: I think the real core of that came from Henry LeGrand Cannon in 1898 who left his collection of-- at the time he would have called objects from the Orient-- to the University of Vermont. And they are actually shown in a couple of rooms on the university campus and that at the Fleming Museum when it opened in the 1930s. Cannon was very fascinated with Asian culture especially Japanese culture.

Carlson: So would samurai wear those?

Tamulonis: No, we placed the masks here so we could talk a little about samurai culture-- that the samurai were very interested in art and poetry and theater so these are examples of theatrical pieces that samurai would have seen and supported.

Carlson: So they were not just warriors.

Tamulonis: Exactly. The samurai culture was not only the battlefield, but it also incorporated a lot of fine arts and poetry.

Carlson: Here is another samurai costume?

Tamulonis: Yes and this is an interesting one because it is probably pretty early. We date it to 1716-- to 1700 or so. This is actually one of the suits of armor that was collected by Henry LeGrand Cannon, so this potentially has seen battle.

Carlson: People think of this legend of the samurai that they would kill themselves in battle if things didn't go right. Is there any truth to that?

Tamulonis: There is some in the sense that many of the samurai, particularly in the early periods, did not fear death; that they saw life and death as a continuum and that allowed them to be especially brave and especially fierce on the battlefield. Actually this is a particularly interesting weapon I think. This is called a barb spear sleeve catcher. This one dates from the mid-19th century it was probably carried in a court of justice as an example of the power of the court, but the iron and metal pieces here you see would have been used as a samurai to catch criminals by the sleeves of their clothing.

Carlson: I see. So it wasn't used to hurt them but to hook them.

Tamulonis: Yes, exactly. These are arrows-- the samurai were originally associated with bows and arrows-- many were mounted on horseback and carried these very large and elaborate bows.

Carlson: What do you hope people will take away if they come to check out this exhibit?

Tamulonis: Well certainly one of the things I hope they take away is how amazing the collections at the Fleming Museum here at the university are. These are objects that all entirely come from the Fleming Museum collections that are used by students and professors here on campus. We're just happy to share them with the general public in an exhibition.

The exhibit runs through May 11th and the Fleming reopens for the spring semester on Jan. 18. The cost to get in is $5 per person, but families can get in for $10 total.

To find out, watch the video on The :30.

Kristin Carlson - WCAX News

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