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You might think of a Japanese handscroll as the movie—or even more apt, the graphic novel—of its time. Like those media, it combines visual imagery with a story.

As time passes in the world of the narrative, time passes in the real world while the viewer performs the actions of unrolling the scroll, reading the calligraphy, and looking at the illustrations. Like movies and comic books, viewing a scroll provides a “you are there” illusion: the actual passage of time and physical actions of experiencing the medium provide an analogue for the movement through geographic space and historical events depicted in the story.

When the Hachiman Handscrolls were given to the Smith College Museum of Art in 2003, they were unrolled and mounted in a truly gigantic vitrine (glass display cabinet) that allowed viewers to see the entire expanse of each scroll simultaneously.

Although that spectacular display made for a rare, spectacular viewing experience for visitors, it’s not the way handscrolls were meant to be seen. Instead, a reader would sit on the floor at a low table and unroll a small section of the scroll at a time to read a single passage of text or view a single image, as shown in the photo below. When finished with that section, the viewer would unroll the next, repeating until they reached the end.

Because of the enormous size of a vitrine capable of displaying a scroll’s full length, and the difficulty of handling a fragile paper object of this size, seeing the full length of a handscroll simultaneously is a rare event. By zooming in and out, and panning left and right, this website not only allows a viewer to experience the scroll in a way that is similar to the way a 17th Century viewer would have (within the terms of the digital world, natch), but also to see its full length. This all-at-once view is an unusual experience in the physical world but provides an interesting perspective for online visitors.

The photos and illustration on this page were created by the Smith College Museum of Art and are used with their permission.

left: a handscroll that has been rolled for storage; right: unrolling a section of a scroll for viewing
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