A visit to the Fan Museum at Greenwich

Fan Museum displayI’ve been wanting to go to the Fan Museum in Greenwich for ages but, frustratingly, something always seems to get in the way. My most recent near miss was a few weeks ago when I was supposed to go with the Japan Society but had to pull out because of heavy snow. But then Yannick came to the rescue with a curator-led tour that included tea in the pretty little Orangery facing the garden. 

The Fan Museum is quite small, housed in a pair of Grade II* listed buildings, constructed in 1721, close by the Greenwich Theatre and Greenwich Park. There is a small permanent collection and shop on the ground floor and temporary exhibitions on the first floor.

Fan Museum

My main interest is in Japanese fans, but the collection includes fans from many countries; the temporary exhibition when we went was focused on the fan in Europe 1800-1850. The curator told us the Japan was the country where the folding fan had originated in the tenth century. There is a theory that whoever invented the folding fan got the idea from looking at bats’ wings.

When the fan was introduced in Europe it rapidly became gender-specific, an expression of femininity that didn’t survive the emancipation of women in the early twentieth century. (A bit like hats). In Japan, by contrast, fans have continued to be part of everyday life for men and women. If you’ve experience the heat and humidity of a Japanese summer you’ll understand why businessmen in their conventional suits often carry – and use – folding fans.

In the past fans have actually been used in that most masculine of activities, war, as a way of signalling. War fans have a red sun on a gold background on one side bad a silver moon on a black background on the other. This war fan is part of the fan museum collection. It has the Tokugawa crest of three hollyhock leaves on the guards:

Fan Museum - war fan

And here’s how it might have been used:

Warrior with war fan

Kitao Masayoshi © The Trustees of the British Museum

Fans also play a significant role in Kabuki and Noh performances, where they helped accentuate gestures and indicate to the audience what was happening through conventions attached to certain movements and positions of the fan. This was particularly important in Noh, where the actors wear masks, and in Japanese dance, which focuses on the hands and arms rather than the legs. The fan functions as an extension of the arm, giving additional line, colour and shape. Dancers’ fans have spaces between the spokes so they can be manipulated more easily.

Here’s a dance fan from the Fan Museum collection – it’s painted with a picture of hibiscus flowers on one side and maple branches on the other:

Fan Museum - dancer's fan

And a dancer using a fan:

Dancer with fan

Katsukawa Shunsho – Kabuki Actor Yamashita Kinsaku as a temple dancer holding up a fan c1773 © The Trustees of the British Museum

But back to the museum. Because space is limited only five percent of the permanent collection can be displayed at any one time. We saw two examples of Japanese fan leaves.

This one shows Tokugawa Ieyasu walking beneath a canopy held by one attendant while the other walks ahead carrying a twisted stick of wood. It dates from around 1700.

Fan Museum - leaf from japanese fan c1700

This one, from the same period, shows musicians contemplating a waterfall.

Fan Museum - leaf from Japanese fan c1700

If you’re visiting the museum and want to see them, they’re hung above the stairs.

Fan Museum staircase

Plus there was this lovely Japanese Edo-period shop sign over the entrance to the museum shop:

Fan Museum Edo period shop sign

Fan Museum shop door

We also looked round the temporary exhibition where there were some beautiful fans on show. Like this brisé fan, where the tops of the sticks are shaped like gothic pinnacles. Brisé means the fan is made of sticks only, fastened together by cord or ribbon, unlike leaf fans which have painted or decorated paper mounted on the sticks.

Fan Museum - brisé fan

This horn fan has a silk leaf embroidered with sequins in flower and foliage motif. It’s French and dates from 1815.

Fan Museum - silk fan leaf 1815

Going in a group made the whole experience much more enjoyable, especially when it came to tea, where conversation flowed over scones with jam and cream and a variety of home-made cakes. Afternoon tea is served in the Orangery on Tuesday and Sunday afternoons – booking is advised.

Fan Museum - Orangery

If you’re looking for a good book on Japanese fans, I recommend Ogi: A history of the Japanese Fan by Julia Hutt and Hélène Alexander (who founded the Fan Museum).

Ogi: A History of the Japanese Fan

8 thoughts on “A visit to the Fan Museum at Greenwich

  1. Oh, you were not too far from our place! Next time you should come by for a cup of tea 🙂
    I never thought about fans as something to be used in a war, but I must say you made me curious! I love Greenwich and I go there often as I live close by, but – despite carrying in my purse a fan myself! – I always overlooked the fan museum. Your post proved me wrong, so I must visit it soon!


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