Corporate museums lie somewhere in between the academic world of museums and the business world of companies. They also serve as organizations that help companies manage many aspects of their operations, including public relations, branding, advertising, and human resources. This article series will explore corporate museums, their roles and functions, and the opportunities they present, all with the help of PR professionals.



Rena Okauchi, PR Consulting Dentsu Inc.


The Spirit of Drama and the Guides at the Sharp Technology Innovation Museum

A corporate museum needs “drama.” These are the words of a professor of the Smithsonian Institution in the United States when they first visited the Sharp Technology Innovation Museum. It is difficult to convey a company’s charm by simply displaying products and presenting its history on panels. Drama is not only limited to success stories. It can also be found in many hardships, which is why it attracts people. This report will explore the guides of Sharp Technology Innovation Museum and their mission to keep conveying that “drama.”


Exterior of Sharp Technology Innovation Museum (Photo courtesy of Sharp Corporation)


Fifteen minutes by bus or taxi from Tenri Station in Nara Prefecture, Sharp Technology Innovation Museum is located in the roughly 230,000-square meters Sharp Advanced Development and Planning Center. Visitors have said, “The museum is not very noticeable”, and “I didn’t even know there was a museum here.” It is, so to speak, a corporate museum known only to people who are in the know. However, after touring the museum, they shared positive comments such as, “It was very informative,” “It was interesting,” and “I want to bring my family next time.” What is the charm of this museum?


Outline of Sharp Technology Innovation Museum

The history of the museum dates back to 1980. Sharp History Hall was established and opened to the public in October 1981 to mourn the passing of the corporate founder Tokuji Hayakawa (1893-1980) and to pass on his achievements to future generations. In the following November, the Technology Hall was opened to showcase the results of cutting-edge technology to some stakeholders. Later, both halls were opened to the public, and in 2012, the museum was renamed to Sharp Technology Innovation Museum, as it is today.

The museum consists of two floors that contain the History Section and the Technology Section. The History Section is 813 square meters and exhibits about 290 of Sharp’s historical products. The Technology Section is 527 square meters and showcases about 100 pieces of the technology that Sharp has cultivated, such as the production process of solar cells and LCDs. The total number of people that have visited the museum so far exceeds 640,000, including people from both Japan and overseas. For groups of five people or more, a guide will take them around the museum. For smaller groups and individual visitors, the museum also offers a free rental of self-guided terminals that utilize the company’s state-of-the-art technology.


Interior of Sharp Technology Innovation Museum (left: the History Section, right: the Technology Section)


A management system of a select few

The museum has only two staff members for management. It is operated by a select few that handle responsibilities ranging from accepting reservations to guiding visitors and maintaining the building. Therefore, cooperation with other divisions is essential. For example, media-related operations, such as interviews and filming, are handled in the public relations division, while external exhibitions and dissemination of information through social media are handled in the design division and brand division, as well as the public relations division. When there are exhibition renewals and events, cooperation is extensively expanded to business divisions, and affiliated companies.

Another distinct feature of this museum is that retirees from Sharp play a role as strong supporters of the museum’s management. These volunteers use Instagram to promote highlights of the museum and trivia of the exhibited items. They also act as guides to lead students in the museum in seasons when there is an increase in excursions and school trips. Thanks to the help of such strong supporters, the museum is able to operate without any delays, even with few staff members.


Sharp's innovations are full of foresight and originality

In the History Section, many of Japan’s and the world’s first products are exhibited in chronological order, such as the first domestic radio and television and the world’s first liquid crystal display calculator. They are all indispensable to modern society. It is amazing to see Sharp’s history of foresight. Soro-cal is a product representative of just that. As you can see, Soro-cal is an abacus and a calculator combined in one. Though it is difficult to imagine now, there were some people who doubted the accuracy of calculators when they first reached society. So, an abacus was attached to the calculator and sold together as a way to check their calculations.


An abacus and a calculator combined and named Soro-cal (Photo courtesy of Sharp Corporation)


I also found that many functions that have become the norm started with Sharp. For example, the Japanese term for cooking food in a microwave oven comes from the sound of the beeping function that was first incorporated into Sharp microwave ovens. When microwave ovens were first marketed, a restaurant chef who had installed one complained. They said because it heated up food so quickly, by the time they opened the microwave door it had already gotten cold again. When one of Sharp’s engineers heard this, they thought of the bicycle bell. When they rang their bicycle bell at a company’s cycling event, the person in front of them heard the sound and made way for them. Based on their real-life experience, the engineer incorporated a sound system by connecting a bell directly to the timer.


The first mass-produced microwave oven in Japan (Photo taken by the writer)


The museum also exhibits products that were too innovative to gain popularity in the market, such as Higedora, which combines a shaver and a dryer, and Ratecaputer, which combines a radio, a TV, a cassette recorder, and a computer all in one. Sharp’s foresight and originality really stand out.
The company was awarded the Milestone Award of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in three areas—calculators, solar cells, and LCD displays—in recognition of its significant contribution to the development of local communities and industries. This was the first time a Japanese company received three awards.


Satellite model equipped with Sharp’s space solar cells (Photo courtesy of Sharp Corporation)


Sharp’s creative and innovative product development is based on Tokuji Hayakawa’s message. He always said, “Make products that other companies want to imitate.” This has been passed down to this day as a business philosophy and creed. What was the founder, Tokuji Hayakawa, like?


The DNA of the sincere and creative Tokuji Hayakawa

Tokuji Hayakawa, who was born in Tokyo in 1893, started an apprenticeship when he was only eight years old. It was there that he learned metalworking techniques which led to his future in product development and innovation, his passion for selling, and the business tips that captured the hearts of customers. After that, he became independent in 1915 and invented and patented the Sharp Pencil (Hayakawa Mechanical Pencil), which also served as the origin of the company name. The stationery store he went to sell the product at repeatedly rejected the pencil. However, through trial and error, he created a new product every week. The high quality and design of his product became topical, and it was a huge hit when it was exported overseas. After that, it started to spread throughout Japan, and the business got right on track. If you take a look at the tops of the Sharp pencils on display, you can see the variety he designed, including models with scissors, thermometers, and compasses attached.


Sharp pencils (Hayakawa Mechanical Pencil) (Photo courtesy of Sharp Corporation)


Although the Sharp pencil business grew rapidly, all factories were lost in the Great Kanto Earthquake, and the Sharp Pencil business was transferred to a company in Osaka. He then decided to start a business in Osaka. While searching for new business developments, he came across a radio. Knowing that radio broadcasting was about to begin the following year, he analyzed and investigated imported crystal radios persistently. Using his metalworking skills, he manufactured the parts and in 1925, succeeded in assembling the first crystal radio made in Japan. The company began to grow as a radio manufacturer from there.

While the radio business was going well, he foresaw that the era of television would follow and decided to research televisions. In 1951, he successfully created a prototype, and in 1953, he began mass production of Japan’s first television. Lowering price through new product developments contributed greatly to the spread of the product to households. The fact that Tokuji Hayakawa’s sincere and creative innovation spirit opened up new markets one after another is impressive.


The importance in conveying the drama, not just the success, that brings the guests closer

I interviewed Ms. Yuriko Fujiwara, my museum guide and a member of Open Innovation Center, Corporate Research and Development Group, and asked what she keeps in mind when she guides visitors. Her response was, “conveying the drama.” She mentioned an anecdote that made her realize its importance. When a professor of the Smithsonian Institution visited the Sharp Technology Innovation Museum in 2006, Ms. Fujiwara asked them a question. “What do you think the museum is missing?”

The professor said, “There isn’t enough drama.” Indeed, historical artifacts are on display here. However, the professor pointed out that there is no drama showing the people, their encounters, and the stories behind it all. Ms. Fujiwara immediately understood what he meant. Since then, she has worked to include materials from those times and interviews with retirees while explaining the behind-the-scenes stories about its development. “Drama is not just a success story so visitors are interested. I have the opportunity to share the real stories as a guide,” says Ms. Fujiwara. She shared her realization that every day she conveys the drama, the distance between her and the visitors becomes much closer. As I walked around the building, I was captivated by the many stories she told me and felt as if I was witnessing the passion and energy involved in the development.


Ms. Yuriko Fujiwara of Sharp’s Open Innovation Center, Corporate Research and Development Group (Photo taken by the writer)


The museum's significance

What is the significance of the Sharp Technology Innovation Museum as a PR asset? Ms. Fujiwara shared her thoughts. “In the 110 years of historical changes, there were many hardships, decisions, and connections between people. Every time they overcame hardships, there were things that they gained, lost, and left behind. All of that is here today. I understand the mission of this museum is to pass these things on to the next generation.”

One hundred and ten years of corporate experiences provide a variety of hints for solving social issues in the next era. The Sharp Technology Innovation Museum is a place where they can be shared with many people. Another employee who was with us at the interview said, “We can say that this museum itself is our business philosophy. A new management system was established in 2016, and while you would think that this will change the company, we believe the spirit of the founder should be passed on to all employees as something that will never change. We invite not only new employees, but also mid-career recruits to come visit. This is a place where we can take another look at the company’s history.” Many of the employees who have visited the museum have expressed thoughts such as, “I like the company even more now,” and “I feel a sense of pride in the company.” So, it has become an important place for internal communication.


Future developments and challenges

To share with as many people as possible the company’s history and the technologies it has cultivated, Sharp is currently working on archiving content. As the part of these efforts, Sharp’s official Instagram account features nostalgic products of the past, centered on their exhibited items, while Sharp’s official Note account introduces small anecdotes from the museum’s day-to-day. Contents are planned to be expanded in the future. If there is a challenge, it would be to educate the guides of the next generation. Content is important, but the storyteller is just as important. Interactive communication, which is difficult to experience with only audio guides, generates engagement with visitors. “I wish I had my own avatar,” Ms. Fujiwara said with a smile in the interview.


Visitors are fascinated by the numerous dramas spun by the guides

Sharp Technology Innovation Museum is full of surprises and discoveries that visitors will want to share with someone. Visitors can discover hints for solving problems and come up with new ideas. They are also sure to have expectations about what Sharp will come up with next. Some of the charm of this museum is the presence of the guides who share the stories. As soon as the tour started, I was drawn into the story, and I felt as if I were traveling through Sharp’s history. There is no doubt it comes from the enthusiasm of the guides and their high level of communication skills that have been nurtured through their experiences. I would like you to visit the museum and experience the passion of the guides firsthand.