History · Other Stuff

Museum Visit: Lethal Beauty at the BMA

“Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor” is a temporary exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Art. You guessed it — it’s samurai weapons and armor! That stuff is also combined with some Japanese art. The exhibit will be on display at the BMA until September 21, but if you can’t make it, take your own tour with their online smartguide! I can also suggest buying the book, also titled Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor. It’s just $25 and contains detailed descriptions of the exhibits, along with excellent pictures to take away. (There’s no photography allowed inside the exhibit itself.)

It's okay outside, though!
It’s okay outside, though!

The armor and weapons were stunning. The docent stressed the quality of the workmanship and the extreme precision that went into these things. She also touched on the historical development of the samurai, their function as a social class, and the decline of their military importance — the exhibit contained some repurposed pieces, like a basket made from sword scabbards, made when the samurai needed money and not swords. The standout for me was the big panel painting of the Battles of Ichinotani and Yashima. It’s so detailed, you can follow individual warriors throughout different events in the battles. There were also some very old manga books and two separate artists’ renditions of the 47 Ronin story, laid out parallel to each other for comparison. Down the hall, the BMOA has a permanent Japanese collection with two full sets of impressive samurai armor, and artistic artifacts outside of weaponry, so I do recommend checking that out in tandem with Lethal Beauty or just on its own.

As far as the museum itself, I was very impressed. It’s a polished and professional exhibit. They provide magnifying glasses for tiny objects, and diagrams of how the swords were put together, plus there’s that book and walkthrough that people can access as desired. My mom is a karate teacher, and I had the opportunity to see the exhibit with one of her classes, thus getting a real tour… Haven’t done that in a long time! Our docent was engaging and good with the kids in the group, and I liked having someone to indicate points of interest. Of course she simplified Japanese history and tradition for tour purposes and the younger kids, and Mom had some complaints about her Japanese pronunciation, but hey, whatcha gonna do. (I was also introduced to her as wanting to go into museum work, and she said, “You know what… DO.” So that was affirming. 😀 )

Of course no one can touch the artifacts — we were told even the museum workers couldn’t touch the weapons, a specially-designated person from Japan is entrusted with that job — but there’s a fun interactive room off to the side with coloring pages for kids, a write-a-haiku magnet wall, and a variety of books at various age levels, with benches where you can sit and read them. They have hashtag posters up to encourage sharing. There’s a photo op inside with mock samurai armor, and also one outside with a face cutout.

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