Museum History

The story begins with plants — plants are the heart of an arboretum.

The American Bicentennial Celebration of Independence in 1976 provoked an international shower of gifts on the citizens of the United States. But the people of Japan gave something unique to their culture and a living tribute to peace between the two countries. Fifty-three bonsai trees from the Nippon Bonsai Association were formally presented to the U. S. National Arboretum in July of 1976. This was the auspicious beginning of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum.


Photo: Joe Mullan

But the story of small trees in pots at the U. S. National Arboretum actually began in 1972 with a gift of penjing trees from China to President Richard M. Nixon. These trees were eventually moved to the Arboretum as the first acquisition of this art form. So there was good reason to acquire more Chinese penjing, the antecedent art form of bonsai, for the Museum. Therefore in the 1980s, when a large collection of penjing from Dr. Yee sun-Wu of Hong Kong was offered to the Museum, it was gratefully accepted.

Now, possessing both Chinese and Japanese collections, the Museum could give visitors a sense of the two main threads in the ancient historical continuum of artistic potted trees.

While bonsai and penjing frame the Museum’s name and are the foundation of its growth, it is the collection of North American plants from regional artists that brings an indigenous focus to the enterprise. Each tree is a gift from a collector within North America and each work of art shows how these practitioners are bringing a new dimension to an old art form.

As the good reputation of the Museum has spread, other donors (for example Daizo Iwasaki of Japan and the late Stanley Chinn of Maryland) offered new specimens to the different collections. This has enriched the collections and brought new visitors to wonder at these small trees.

Three separate collections representing three different cultures and geographical locations in one Museum in the capital of the United States: the trees are here as a gift to be shared with all people.



Photo: Joe Mullan

While the most important part of an arboretum is the plants — an arboretum is not an arboretum without people. And it is the individuals who can envision new possibilities for the connections between persons and plants that bring about important developments in this educational process. The Museum has benefited from having three such men as Directors of the U.S. National Arboretum during the past quarter of a century.
The whole idea of having bonsai on display in an American setting belongs to Dr. John Creech. In 1973 he began working with Japan and the Nippon Bonsai Association to bring bonsai to the United States. At the same time he persuaded officials in the federal government not only to accept this gracious gift, but to build a facility to display these unusual trees. Without John Creech there would not be a National Bonsai & Penjing Museum.

Without the leadership of the next Director, Dr. H. Marc Cathey, the Museum would not have not have acquired the penjing collection and therefore would lack the breadth of having both major strains in the history of artistic potted plants represented in the Museum. Dr. Cathey was also instrumental in establishing links to the American bonsai community for the purpose of developing the North American Collection.

Most recently, Dr. Thomas Elias, following in the footsteps of Creech and Cathey, continued to see new possibilities for the Museum. Educational facilities were constructed and new educational programs were provided; the Museum library was developed into a scholarly resource without rival in the United States; and the arts related to bonsai and penjing were improved and accentuated.

Without John Creech, Marc Cathey and Tom Elias the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum would not be the finest Museum of its kind in the world.

The Museum has also been favored by Curators who have each embellished a different aspect in the Museum’s development. Robert “Bonsai Bob” Drechsler provided the steady hand and meticulous care that the collection required in its early days. For over 20 years, (1975-1998), Bob, and his assistant Dan Chiplis, had the great responsibility of maintaining the collections at the high level expected by the donors. Yet their expectations were surpassed.

Then Warren Hill (1998-2001) brought to the Museum a wonderful gift for styling and display that provided the requisite flair to attract new visitors to the Museum. His successor, Jack Sustic (2001-2005), provided the skill to bring the collection to its present level of distinction that brought renown for the Museum.  Jim Hughes (2005-2008) brought to the Museum and the collections extensive bonsai knowledge, gained from working with all three previous Curators, and his own artistic talents.  Jack Sustic returned as Curator in 2011 and continues to use his outstanding artistic talent to make the Museum’s collections the best in the world.

To be Curator of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum is to hold in your care priceless works of living art kept alive for decades, even centuries, and it is your responsibility to carry this work to the future with many watchful followers observing the Curator in his work. It is the good fortune of the Museum to have had outstanding Curators who could shoulder this burden and move the Museum forward to acclaim.

One of the most important figures in the early history of the Museum was Saburo Kato (1915-2008) who was a founding director of Nippon Bonsai Association and Chairman from 1980 until his death.  As Dr. Creech wrote in his book, Mr. Kato was the most respected bonsai master in Japan.  Not only was Mr. Kato instrumental in orchestrating the 1976 Bicentennial gift but he also made a number of trips to the Museum to give talks and demonstrations, and to ensure that the bonsai were being cared for properly.  Mr. Kato believed deeply in the spiritual power of bonsai , and often spoke of how the art of bonsai could help to bring peace to the world.  To make this dream a reality, he founded the World Bonsai Friendship Federation which made the Museum the show case of its 5th World Bonsai Convention in Washington D.C. in 2005.  In 2002 the Stroll Garden leading into the Japanese Pavilion at the Museum was renamed “The Kato Family Stroll Garden” in honor of his enormous contributions the Museum and to the art of bonsai.

The Museum has been fortunate to have had two eminent teachers to guide and shape the destiny of this place. Both were Japanese-Americans and renowned authors and bonsai artists; one was from the eastern part of the United States and one was from the west.
Yuji Yoshimura (1921-1997) was a scholar and an artist who taught bonsai publicly in a time when this was an art that was nurtured in private gardens. This attracted many followers on the East Coast of the United States, and among these students were people who were instrumental in shaping the future of the Museum, especially the late Marion Gyllenswan.

John Naka (1915-2004), on the other hand, lived in California and traveled the globe carrying the message of bonsai as an instrument of peace. But his home-away-from-home was the Museum, and he bestowed on it ‘Goshin’, a forest planting symbolizing his descendents. Both of these men are the spiritual guardians of the Museum and their presence here is tangible.

The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum would not be what it is now if it were not for the many volunteers who have worked in its collections year after year. While the Curator and the staff have day-to-day responsibilities for the Museum, it is the volunteers who provide all the little attentions that each tree in the collection needs in order to be healthy and beautiful. Many of these volunteers are members of the Potomac Bonsai Association, which has played a primary role in the development of the Museum. Of these many volunteers, one volunteer must be singled out: Janet Lanman who has worked at the Museum for the entire period of its existence from 1975 until now. She is the model for all Museum volunteers and thankfully there are many who follow her example.

The National Bonsai Foundation (NBF), a non-profit section 501 (c) 3 organization, was founded in 1982 and has as its sole purpose to sustain the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum. Under the leadership of two presidents, Frederic Ballard and Felix Laughlin, and with the help of many, but in particular Marybel Balendonck and Mary Ann Orlando, it has raised millions of dollars to benefit the Museum and its collections. Extraordinary benefactors and advisors include David Garvin, Barbara Hall Marshall, William H. Merritt, Mary E. Mrose, Deborah Rose and Howard Vanzant. These people, through the fund raising work of NBF have provided the Museum with its handsome facilities to display the trees and related works of art.

Finally it is the visitor who shapes the mission of the Museum. Without visitors the Museum is without meaning. Therefore, every detail, every exhibit, every display, every educational opportunity is conceived and developed with an eye towards receiving the visitor. It is then that bonsai and penjing work their magic as the viewer quietly, even meditatively, contemplates the art.

Plants and people make an arboretum. People meeting bonsai and penjing make the Museum the most special place at the U. S. National Arboretum.

Constructed around the beautiful Maria Vanzant Upper Courtyard, the Rose Family Garden and the Melba Tucker Arbor, the Museum is made up of three pavilions and two activity centers.


A visitor can best experience the Museum by entering along the Cryptomeiria walk to the Mary E. Mrose International Pavilion. This pavilion gives the visitor information and is a display area for educational exhibits and collection shows. To follow the path of historical development of the art of penjing and bonsai, the next stop is the Yee-sun Wu Chinese Pavilion that houses the penjing collection. Moving across the courtyard to the Kato Family Stroll Garden the visitor is introduced to the oldest of the structures, the Japanese Pavilion. From there walking through the George Yamaguchi Garden the visitor reaches the John Y. Naka North American Pavilion and the Kanehshiro Tropical Conservatory. Finally the Yuji Yoshimura Center provides demonstration space and workroom and office facilities for staff and volunteers.

All of these spaces are dedicated to people who have played great roles in the creation of this Museum. Each one has loved bonsai and penjing and wanted to share this love of trees with others. Their gifts to the National Bonsai Foundation and the Arboretum have provided the setting where visitors can encounter these exquisite trees that evoke different times and other places.

Props and Other Things
The meaning of props in a theatrical sense is to support. And this is what the art and book collections do in the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum.


Photo: Joe Mullan

The collection of other objects to be shown with the trees also began in 1976 with the six viewing stones that were sent with the initial gift of trees. The collection of objects that accompany the display of plants has grown immensely. In addition to the stunning viewing stones, there are also handsome pots, beautiful scrolls and lovely companion plants. Each of these objects can be used in combination with the trees in the formal Tokonoma or they may be shown in separate exhibits that explain their relationship to the trees. These different collections give depth to the aesthetic composition of the Museum and also give visitors more reasons to return again and again.

The library collection in particular is very special. Many rare books and periodicals dedicated to bonsai and the related arts have been purchased or donated. Because the collection includes publications in other languages as well as English they will be a treasure trove for researchers and scholars in the future.

These plants, these people, this place and these works of art make the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, once the first bonsai and penjing museum, the best museum of its kind in the world. In 2005 the convening of the Fifth World Bonsai Convention in Washington D.C., brought many compliments to the Museum. But it was the convention theme,” Bringing the World Together Through Bonsai,” that was an eloquent reminder of the role the Museum has played in the past, and will continue to play in the future, in bringing people together, in this place, through the art of these small trees.
Johann F. Klodzen
Reprinted from the 5th World Bonsai Convention Book.