Digitising the Sword Ornament Collection at the National Museum of Scotland: A Workshop Report

From 17th – 21st July 2023, I participated in a one-week workshop led by Dr Ryoko Matsuba, Sainsbury Institute Lecturer in Japanese Digital Arts and Humanities. The aim of the workshop was to digitise tsuba鍔 (sword guard) and other sword ornament collections at the National Museum of Scotland as part of the Ishibashi Digital Futures initiative.

The project commenced with the initial photography phase, during which our team meticulously configured cameras and tested various lighting setups. This stage was instrumental in perfecting our understanding of lighting conditions and their impact on capturing tsuba and sword ornaments. After the photography phase, our team gathered for a workshop to share insights and techniques that had proven successful. This collaborative environment was conducive to brainstorming innovative approaches to improve our results. Valuable feedback from team members propelled us toward method refinement and process optimisation. Armed with insights from the workshop, we advanced to the third phase, focusing on the actual digitisation process. At this stage, we divided ourselves into two teams, one working on tsuba and the other on the collection of menuki 目貫 and koduka小柄, using two Nikon D850 cameras and lighting rings to capture the intricate details of the sword ornaments.

Carefully configuring the cameras and lighting to best capture the tsuba was the first stage of the digitisation process.

I joined the team with the responsibility of digitising tsuba, which means I needed to photograph the front and back of each one. Before beginning the digitisation process, the museum collection was organised and prepared for imaging, which included assessing the condition of each item and ensuring that it was free from any dust or debris that might affect the image quality. A colour chart was placed within the frame of the artwork, acting as a reference point for adjusting colour balance during image processing. Camera settings, such as ISO, aperture, and shutter speed were carefully adjusted to capture the artwork accurately. The camera’s white balance was also calibrated to ensure that colours were rendered correctly. Once the setup was optimised, the actual digitization process began. Each tsuba was carefully placed on the lightbox with a clean sheet beneath it, and the camera captured high-resolution images. Afterwards, the photo was catalogued with the corresponding item’s museum accession number.

Once the setup had been optimised, each tsuba was carefully placed on top of a clean sheet inside the lightbox to be photographed.

The collections’ digitisation presented a number of challenges that needed imaginative problem-solving and collaborative initiatives. One of the most significant challenges we faced was the need for precise camera angle adjustments. It was important to ensure that there were no distortions or perspective issues in the images, which often required minute modifications based on the grid lines presented on the laptop. The different sizes and materials of tsuba added complexity to the process as we needed to adjust the camera for each object. Moreover, the reflective nature of these metallic objects presented a unique challenge, demanding a lighting configuration that simultaneously minimised reflections, highlighted intricate designs, and eliminated internal shadows cast by object apertures. We adopted a successful technique identified by team members from the previous project, involving angling the light source to enhance embossing and engravings. Coupled with a lightbox beneath the tsuba, this approach effectively eliminated shadows. Moderately over-exposed shots were found to be the most effective in capturing the colour and design intricacies of the tsuba. This established configuration streamlined the process, and images of the front and back of each tsuba were captured, using flash photography to enhance the legibility of details such as signatures.

Capturing high quality photos of the tsuba was a creative and collaborative effort.

While these challenges were demanding, they were also incredibly rewarding to overcome. Over time, we developed a better understanding of the process, enabling us to capture high-quality photographs that met the required ratio and quality. This achievement was the result of our collective efforts, creativity and collaboration, all of which were essential, given the time constraints, conditions, and environment.

Jade Zhang
MA Digital Humanities graduate, University College London