Back in 1984, curator Ann Yonemura purchased the first-ever artifact for the Sackler Gallery of Art. It was an antique Japanese palanquin. Palanquins were used as transportation during the Tokugawa period of Japanese history, which ended in 1868. High-ranking Japanese nobility sat in the fancy compartments, and as many as six bearers carried it through the streets.
Yonemura knew that the palanquin belonged to a high-ranking noblewoman, since only the elite were permitted such ostentation. But it wasn't until this year, as reported in the January issue of Smithsonian magazine, that she figured out who the palanquin was made for.
Yonemura received a call from Shin'ichi Saito, a curator at the Tokyo Metropolitan Edo-Tokyo Museum. A document he'd found in the Japanese National Archives listed the items that had been made for the 1856 marriage between shogun Tokugawa Iesada and Princess Atsuhime. He was sure the Sackler's palanquin was made for Atsuhime. She would have sat in it, and six bearers would have carried her through the streets from her parents' home to her new husband's.
But Atsuhume was more than just a shogun's third wife. Her husband died two years after their marriage, making her a widow at 23. Undaunted, Atsuhime renamed herself Tenshoin. When the Tokugawa clan resigned the shogunate and imperial rule resumed, Princess Atsuhime remained a force in politics, advancing her family's position. Her life spanned the birth of a modern, powerful Japan. Atsuhime's fascinating story is the subject of a 50-episode drama, currently airing on the Japanese public TV network NHK.
Watch part of the first episode below!