A pile of small display cases lies in the dirt outside the Rikuzentakata City Museum. With their glass tops smashed into a thousand shards that reflect the sunlight through a layer of dried mud, it’s difficult to make out the crushed wings of the small butterflies still pinned inside.

Over two months have passed since the March 11 tsunami that leveled most of this city and completely inundated its two-story museum. For the last six weeks, a small group of city staff, volunteers and Self-Defense Force personnel have been attending to the mammoth task of recovering what is left of a collection of cultural, botanical and zoological artifacts that once numbered over 150,000 pieces.

“You should have seen it here when we arrived,” said Koji Maeda, the head of the GSDF’s 9th reconnaissance unit stationed in Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture.

“Initially we were here for corpse-retrieval work, and it took several weeks just to clear enough debris so you could get close to the museum.”

Miraculously, the building, which was completed in 1979, remained standing throughout the tsunami. Nevertheless, the power of the wave that hit this area — having smashed through seawalls and a 70,000-tree coastal strip of pine forest — is clear from the fact that two cars were found deep inside the building’s windowless first-floor storerooms, and that its second-floor ceilings were largely ripped away.

The other, more sobering indicator of the wave’s destructive force is that none of the museum’s six full-time staff survived.

“Those are the insect display cases,” explained an elderly man whose tired eyes were all that was visible behind his helmet and dust mask. Fumito Honda, as he soon introduced himself, is now a key figure in the attempt to save the museum’s collection.

From 1999 to 2006 he served as the museum’s director — and was thus responsible for creating much of what the tsunami destroyed.

“I retired five years ago,” said the 72-year-old who voluntarily came to the museum site to start helping the recovery work. Surveying the wreckage around him, he continued, “I’m working here like this, but I have to keep reminding myself that it is not a dream or a hallucination. This is all real.”

Honda explained that the museum’s collection had been particularly significant because it was the oldest public institution of its kind in the Tohoku region, having opened initially in 1959.

It contained a wide range of artifacts, he said, from Jomon Period (10,000-300 B.C.) pottery and insect specimens to artworks such as paintings, as well as historical fishing implements that had been registered as Important Tangible Folk Cultural Properties.

As the tsunami hit the museum, all of those objects were soaked in muddy seawater, battered by rubble and debris and, in some cases it is feared, swept out to sea.

Tsunami damage at Rikuzentakata spread not just to the museum but also to the city office, which has meant that coordination of recovery efforts like those at the museum have been difficult.

On the ground, that task has fallen primarily to Honda and also a former colleague of his, Masaru Kumagai, who had recently divided his time between the Rikuzentakata City Museum and another, smaller museum also located in the city.

They are being aided by the SDF, which says it will remain on the site until the recovery work is complete, and support staff sent from other local governments in the vicinity.

Iwate Prefecture has so far chipped in by instructing its prefectural museum in Morioka to take on the task of restoring insect samples and also paper-made artifacts, such as historical documents and pressed botanical samples, which are particularly vulnerable to seawater damage.

A prefectural museum representative couldn’t put a figure on the number of artifacts received there so far, although it is known that they have requested and gained the support of at least 29 other museums nationwide to hasten the restoration work.

Tsutomu Kamata, from Iwate Prefecture’s lifelong learning and culture department, which oversees cultural artifacts, said that all of the items currently in the care of the prefectural museum must eventually be returned to the city of Rikuzentakata.

He added that the prefecture will liaise with the national government’s Cultural Affairs Agency to restore any of the fishing implements that had been registered as important cultural properties.

The agency, for its part, says it has received requests for equipment from Iwate Prefecture, but not expertise.

“A variety of tools, such as cloths, paper, boxes and special glue has been delivered,” explained Motofumi Morishita of the agency’s cultural properties department.

All of the agency’s support work in tsunami-affected areas, including this provision of equipment to Iwate Prefecture, has been channelled through a specially created “cultural properties rescue committee” consisting of various national associations of museums, galleries, libraries, historians and academics.

In Miyagi Prefecture, which has requested support in the form of both equipment and expertise to rescue its 10 tsunami-damaged museums, the rescue committee has arranged for teams of specialists to travel to the affected museums and recover damaged artifacts. Iwate Prefecture has the option to request similar assistance, but it has not done so to date.

Still, the funding for all work done by the rescue committee comes not from the agency but from the inevitably slim budgets of the committee’s member organizations and donations received from the private sector.

The agency’s lack of a budget for rescue work necessitates this circuitous funding arrangement.

Morishita explained that the agency has requested that funds for such work be included in the second supplementary budget, which is expected to be compiled in summer. But, he said, “we have no idea if that request will be met.”

Meanwhile, the fate of paintings held at the Rikuzentakata City Museum appears to be in the hands of one of the rescue committee’s members, the Japanese Council of Art Museums.

Important works by the likes of modernist Genichiro Inokuma (1902-1993) are presently gathering mold on the museum’s battered second floor, but according to a representative from the museum council they will most likely soon be moved to a different location for emergency cleaning. Where they will go in the long term is unknown.

Aside from the paper objects that have gone to the Iwate Prefectural Museum and the artworks that will soon move elsewhere, many thousands of other objects recovered at the Rikuzentakata site are now being transported by Honda and Kumagai’s team to the city’s Oide Elementary School, which is located in a leafy valley about 15 km inland from the city center. The school was recently closed down due to depopulation in the region.

Dozens of large plastic trays and tubs have been set up on the grounds of the school to wash salt from the objects brought there. The objects are then hung out to dry and stored. No decision has been made on how long they will remain at the school, although it could be until the museum is eventually rebuilt — at a date also still undetermined.

Among several staff and volunteers who were unloading objects from the back of a small truck at the school was Aya Suzuki.

The 22-year-old explained that although she is a native of Rikuzentakata, she was in Nara Prefecture at the time of the tsunami, attending her graduation ceremony at Tenri University.

“Before the tsunami came, I had been accepted to start work as a curator at the Rikuzentakata City Museum from April 1,” she said, as she cradled a “shishimai” lion mask that had been found by the SDF on top of a collapsed building that morning. “Come April 1 and my place of employment had been washed away,” she said.

Still, Suzuki’s employment with the city’s lifelong learning department, which oversees the museum, went ahead. In April she became the first post-tsunami — and hence the only — full-time employee of the Rikuzentakata City Museum.

“I never expected my first task would be to rescue the collection, but our predecessors invested so much energy in building up this museum. We can’t let that go to waste,” said Suzuki, who is now working with Honda under the direction of Kumagai.

She paused to look at the wooden lion mask, covered in dried mud and cracked in several places, and then carefully carried it inside the school.

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