Penn M.L.A. Grad Helps Bring Japanese Artifacts Into the Spotlight After More Than a Century

Given as a gift to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology more than a century ago, 187 Japanese archeological artifacts in storage are getting new attention through an object-based learning class at Penn this semester.

The ceramic pots, stone tools and weapons were featured at the World’s Columbian Exposition, or World’s Fair, of 1893 in Chicago, and then given to Penn by the Tokyo National Museum and Japanese government.

“They were really carefully selected. They represent each time period, and different types of objects,” says Yoko Nishimura, the lecturer who is teaching the new class, Japanese Archaeology in the Penn Museum. “It is quite a good collection.”

Assisting her this summer was Jonathan Singleton, a 2017 graduate of Penn’s Master of Liberal Arts program in the School of Arts & SciencesCollege of Liberal and Professional Studies. Singleton, whose M.L.A. focus was in ancient studies, worked as a Museum intern to help catalog the objects.

Singleton photographed and researched the artifacts to enhance the Museum's online database to aid Nishimura’s new class. The database has also been sought after by international scholars who have shown interest in the collection.

“I took a lot of pictures, and did a lot of handling of the artifacts,” Singleton says. “Being able to hold the object, and see it, and know it was at the World’s Fair, the experience really sparked the fire for me again in my interest in East Asia. I found it very interesting, and immersive.”

Singleton became interested in Asia as a result of a class with Nishimura, an archaeology lecturer in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, his first semester at Penn. He then took classes with her each semester as he developed a concentration in East Asia. She also served as his master’s thesis advisor.

“The subject was so engaging and opened a new door for me. I wanted to know more about East Asia and further my understanding of its various cultures,” says Singleton. “Professor Nishimura brought in elements she knew from growing up in Japan. She could tell us about the culture through a personal story.”

Stephen Lang, the Museum’s Lyons Keeper of Collections, guided Singleton during the internship. They worked together to research the World’s Fair, tracking down photographs and primary-source information, including original programs. Lang’s interest in the collection started last year when a scholar asked about some large Japanese watercolor paintings, which turned out to be part of the Museum’s collection from the 1893 Exposition.

​​​​​​​The Museum director at the time of the 1893 Expo, Stewart Culin, had brokered an exchange of the materials with the Imperial Tokyo Museum, known today as the Tokyo National Museum. Penn received 204 objects in the exchange, including the watercolors. Lang’s realization led to a larger discussion about the archeological material the Museum has from Japan, he says.

Lang then teamed up with Nishimura to explore the collection. Nishimura is part of collaborative project with international scholars working to trace the movement of Japanese ancient artifacts, with a focus on museums in the United States, between the 1860s and the 1920s.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

Penn has one of the most interesting Japanese collections in the country, says Nishimura.

​​​​​​​“We are trying to bring modern-day data and scholarship to these collections that have been overlooked for a long time, so they can be analyzed and understood,” Lang says. “It’s a good project, and it’s worthwhile, because of the imperial pedigree and Tokyo National Museum.”

​​​​​​​Singleton’s work during the summer was important to advance that project, Lang says. The photographs show distinctive markings and inscriptions, which indicate where the artifacts were made, and Nishimura says the collection is from all over Japan and was meant to show the sophistication of Japanese prehistoric materials. 

Nishimura’s classes and mentoring have been critical to Singleton’s studies, he says. Asia didn’t figure much into his undergraduate studies in anthropology and archaeology at Drew University, nor while he was growing up in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia. But then again neither did the possibility of an advanced degree.

“I actually have dyslexia,” says Singleton. “I couldn’t read or write very well growing up. I never thought I would be at an Ivy League school.”

He worked with specialists in high school and eventually thrived in academia, discovering a love of history and, subsequently, archaeology. With his Penn degree in hand and the internship completed, he is looking for a job in his field. He is also considering pursuing a master’s degree in museum science and eventually a doctorate in archaeology or anthropology.

Meanwhile, he is continuing working at the Museum, on staff in visitor services as a greeter at the entrances, and as a volunteer educator with Cartifacts, a program that allows visitors to touch and handle artifacts and ask questions.

 “I have gotten a lot of skills with artifacts here that I couldn’t get from anywhere else,” says Singleton. “I love expressing the knowledge I have with other people.”

Singleton, Jonathan Penn Museum 2