Goodbye, Lennon: Remembering The John Lennon Museum

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Up until last year, Japan was the home of the first John Lennon museum to be officially authorized by Yoko Ono. Housed inside the Saitama Super Arena, the 1,500-square-meter museum opened on October 9, 2000, the 60th anniversary of Lennon’s birth. It closed on September 30, 2010, when its exhibit contract with Yoko Ono expired. Over its 10-year existence, a total of about 610,000 visitors came to visit the museum.

I am a *huge* Beatles fan, so I made a point of visiting the museum back in 2006, just before I left Japan to start graduate school. Given how busy I was at that time, my photos from the museum remained buried in my Flickr account, untagged and untitled. Since the museum is now closed to visitors, I thought now would be an opportune time to dig them out and share them with all of you.

The museum housed all kinds of musical instruments, clothes, and music and lyrics from all periods of Lennon’s life; about 135 items were obtained from Yoko Ono for display. The paths took you around nine different zones from “Childhood Memories” to “The Beatles” and “Love and Peace” and finally to “Household Husband.” I was familiar with many of the pieces—thanks to my obsession with The Beatles Anthology—but it was incredible to see some of this memorabilia up close:

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The museum did an excellent job of showcasing various notes and scribbles done by John Lennon. It felt very intimate to see working drafts of songs that would later become such international favorites, to note the words the Lennon had second thoughts about or last-minute changes in songs. I snapped a shot of the lyrics to “Julia”:

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Several iconic pieces were also on display, such as Lennon’s famous white piano:

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They also exhibited a pair of his iconic glasses, which became associated with Lennon after he wore them in the film How I Won The War:

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One interesting thing to note is that, since the museum was authorized by Yoko Ono and constructed from materials that she donated, it does tend to present a somewhat Yoko-filtered picture at times. As Japan Visitor points out, “the first attraction, a 7-minute movie of John Lennon’s life, makes no mention at all of his first marriage to Cynthia Powell. John’s relationship with Paul McCartney also gets minimal exposure. On the other hand, Yoko Ono’s life and works – even pre-Lennon – get very extensive coverage.” I don’t necessarily think that this detracted from the museum, but it was interesting that there was a sizable area dedicated to works of art by Yoko Ono near the end. I actually thought it was fun to see some of these pieces, some of which I had seen or read mentions of in other works about Lennon’s life. Many of the art pieces were interactive. For example, visitors were meant to climb to the top of the staircase below. At the top, a single tiny word was illuminated on the ceiling: “Yes.”

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Another simple work featured only the numbers “1980.12.08”—white digits on a white background. It memorialized the date of Lennon’s death: December 8, 1980.

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The final room of the museum was a space for solemn reflection—not necessarily on the sadness of Lennon’s death, but on all the challenges faced by the world, including those such as war that Lennon railed against during his lifetime.

The museum also had a couple of other features that I really enjoyed. The first was a a listening room, complete with comfy couches where you could relax and listen to your favorite Beatles or Lennon CDs on headphones. They had all of the albums available for check-out at a desk, so you could simply grab one and spend as long as you liked looking out the windows, drinking coffee, and listening to great tunes. The second feature was a great gift shop (an essential part of any good museum). I picked up a fabulous book called Ai: Japan Through John Lennon’s Eyes, which contained the notes and pictures that Lennon created when he was learning the Japanese language. I wish I had my copy on hand; I would scan a page or two to share with you. But I thought it was really neat—Lennon would write down various Japanese words and draw a (usually amusing) sketch to go along with it. It provided an interesting glimpse into how he looked at the world—and it was actually kind of useful for language learning.

In any case, I’m sad that the museum is no longer with us. When asked about her reasons for letting the contract expire, Yoko Ono said,

“John Lennon’s destiny spanned the whole world. His spirit came alive through movement, and without movement, it dies. If the Museum which houses his spirit never moved, it would be a grave, not a Museum. John does not have a grave. When he passed on, I publicly announced that I would not be holding a funeral for him. I did so because I knew his spirit would live forever.”

If this is true, perhaps we’ll see the museum move to another city elsewhere in the world. Some sources indicate that there were plans in the works to create a similar museum after the items were returned to Yoko Ono. And the annual visitor figures for the Saitama museum had been declining; by 2010, there were only about 30,000 visitors per year, compared to 124,000 in the year the museum first opened. So, maybe it was time for the museum to move on. In any case, I’d like to think that other people will have a chance to enjoy this great memorabilia one day.

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This post was featured on “Freshly Pressed” on January 28, 2011. Thanks to all of you who stopped by!

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