Of all the many and varied recovery and repair efforts now under way following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, few would be as fiddly as the Rikuzentakata Disaster Document Digitalization Project.
Each Wednesday night and on weekends, a group of volunteers quietly assembles in nondescript classrooms in the Tokyo Polytechnic University in the capital’s Nakano Ward. They don white lab coats, gloves and surgical masks, and then set to work cleaning and digitizing 80,000 or so historical photographs, negatives, slides and dry prints recovered from the wreckage of the tsunami-devastated Rikuzentakata City Museum and other public cultural facilities that were once the pride of that Iwate Prefecture community of 24,000 residents, of whom over 2,000 perished in the disaster.
The mammoth undertaking, which is now in its 10th month, is led by Takeshi Uchida of Waseda System Development, and Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography curator Keishi Mitsui, who were drawn together in the quake’s aftermath by a shared desire to do something to help.
“Our company creates museum databases, so I had worked with a lot of museum curators from around the country, including those in Tohoku who were on the ground helping recover objects from the Rikuzentakata City Museum,” Uchida told The Japan Times. After making an offer to help with the cleaning and sorting, he was soon sent several boxes of waterlogged photographic materials.
“I didn’t have expertise in photographs, so on April 23 last year I went to a symposium organized by Save MLAK (a grassroots group that had sprung up to share information about quake- and tsunami-damaged cultural properties), and at the end I stood up and asked if anyone could help. That was when Mitsui came up and introduced himself,” Uchida said.
The pair established their organization in June and one month later received an official commission to conduct the work from Iwate Prefecture. In September, they gained use of rooms within the Tokyo Polytechnic University and in October they acquired funding in the form of a grant from the Camera and Imaging Products Association.
Then it was time to actually start opening the boxes.
‘To be honest, I was stunned at just how bad a condition many of the materials were in,” explained Mitsui. “I guess that in the back of my mind I had been thinking that because you use water to actually develop photos, for them to be inundated like that wouldn’t be so much of a problem.”
Mitsui quickly realized that the salt in the water prevented the photos from drying quickly, which in turn meant that the emulsion had become sticky and in some cases had washed off completely.
Mitsui and Uchida decided that the project would have two objectives. The first would be to clean the materials of all physical debris such as dust and sand, and then place them between sheets of acid-free paper to prevent further deterioration. Washing the materials in water was not an option because, as Mitsui explained, “the emulsion had become so fragile, that it would wash away.”
The second objective would be to record all of the images digitally. “Every image will be uploaded to a server and made available for the public to see,” said Uchida, adding that his company is providing the database and system requirements (as well as his own time) free of charge. Eventually, that data, along with the photographic materials themselves would be returned to Iwate Prefecture.
One of the trickiest items to deal with are the 1,600 dry-plates from the museum collection. Since dry-plates have black emulsion attached directly to the glass, many of them had stuck together after being soaked in water.
“It took a long time to work out the best way to separate them so they didn’t crack,” Mitsui said. “We eventually decided on sliding a very thin (0.25 mm) blade between them.”
After demonstrating with one pair, he held up the two images: One was a 1930s image of school children playing sports and the other was of the Japanese flag.
Many of the 35-mm slides in the collection were stored in plastic sleeves along with their contact prints. The prints had stuck to the sleeves, and rather than risk destroying them by removing the plastic, Mitsui decided to just cut the sleeves to the size of the prints, and leave them stuck together.
One volunteer carefully cut through a sleeve and then used a brush to remove sand from a print depicting an Oshira-sama, a traditional guardian figurine popular in northeastern Japan. “It is very difficult to clean the prints without causing further damage,” the 34-year-old said. Although she didn’t want her name used in the newspaper, she explained that she is a curator by profession and that she felt the project was a way to help out in the wake of the disaster.
Mitsui said that although the painstaking labor does take a certain temperament, professional experience is not necessary for volunteering. In fact, he added, another of the project objectives is to develop a shared pool of knowledge so that next time a disaster strikes, non-professionals will have access to information about how to treat photographic materials damaged in similar ways.
“The key lesson we’ve learned so far is just how important it is that photographs are washed quickly. Some of those in Rikuzentakata were washed immediately after the tsunami and they are in much better condition than those that were allowed to fester,” he said. “With photographs, washing at 20 degrees Celsius is ideal, but even washing at lower temperatures is preferable to doing nothing,” he said.
Of course, the collection of the Rikuzentakata City Museum included much more than photographs. Curator Masaru Kumagai, who prior to the tsunami divided his time between the museum and another city institution (all the museum’s full-time employees were killed by the tsunami), explained that a total of 310,000 items from the collection of the museum and other city cultural facilities had been recovered from the debris.
“So far, 50,000 of those have been cleaned,” he explained, before adding that most of those were insect and botanical samples that had been cleaned by the Iwate Prefectural Museum and other institutions around the country that volunteered to help.
Most of the remaining objects — everything from old fishing and farming implements to decorations used in festivals — are being stored at the city’s disused Oide Elementary School, which has recently been designated as the museum’s temporary home. “It’s going to take us a lot longer to work through all of those,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mitsui and his team are making just slightly better progress on the photographic materials. “We’ve cleaned a little over half of the 80,000 photographic items so far, but the scanning is going to be the really time-consuming part,” he said. “We’ve still got a lot to do.”
For more information on the Rikuzentakata Disaster Document Digitalization Project, see tsunami-311.org.