Conversation: Digitising the British Museum’s Hanging Scroll Collections

From 27th February to 3rd March, the project to digitise the Japanese hanging scroll collections took place at the British Museum under the special guidance of Dr Ryoko Matsuba, Lecturer in Japanese Digital Arts and Humanities. This project, which is relevant to the British Museum’s research project: ‘Making art together in Japan 1780–1880’, was jointly undertaken by the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures (SISJAC) and the Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University (ARC). In this article, two MA students, Xinyao ​Lu​ (SOAS) and Nanaka Kishi (UEA), who recently participated in the project as research assistants, will review their experiences and insights by answering the given questions.

– What did you do in the project? 

Xinyao: Throughout the duration, we digitised over 60 hanging scrolls from the British Museum’s Japanese collection by taking professional photographs of the museum objects and labelling them as part of the collection. It began with preparing a studio environment capable of photographing the hanging scrolls; installing a board covered by white cloth to hang scrolls, putting up the lights for shooting, mounting a camera on a tripod and connecting them to a laptop. 

The installation for photographing hanging scrolls.

Nanaka: After setting up this equipment for photographing, we turned off the room lights and adjusted the position of the camera’s lighting stands and white balance by using the installed application in the laptop beneath the camera. Once the preparation was done, the four project members divided our tasks, opened the collections, took photographs of each part of the works, and labelled and categorised them on the PC. Xinyao and I were particularly responsible for the photographing of the hanging scrolls’ pictures: the overall called, Sōtake (総丈), and the main picture part, Honshi (本紙). 

To explore the project further, take a look around Xinyao Lu’s interactive illustration, featuring Nanaka Kishi and Xinyao Lu photographing Sōtake (総丈) and Honshi (本紙) of a hanging scroll; Dr Ryoko Matsuba photographing details, including seal scripts and signatures in a hanging scroll; and Sophie Gong working on labelling images and quality check for digitisation.

– Are there any particular things you had to take care of when dealing with the museum collection?

Xinyao: We needed to handle objects very carefully to maintain the quality and avoid any further damage. Dr Ryoko, the curator Akiko Yano, and another experienced research assistant kindly taught us how to handle objects and tools required for photographing. That was very helpful in grasping the procedure and delivering smooth digitisation. I have made some graphical notes to help to memorise how the hanging scrolls should be treated:

Nanaka: These detailed illustrations are fantastic! I’m sure they will help future assistants understand how to manage hanging scrolls before and throughout the project.

It was also important to wash our hands well before work to ensure they were ready to touch the museum collection and other precious equipment. For example, we needed to wear gloves when we handled colour charts, the tool used to fix the colour of the artwork on the image.  

Washing hands before the start of digitisation and touching the colour chart bar with gloves.

– What were the challenges in digitising the collections? How did you overcome the issues?  

Xinyao: One of the most challenging things we faced was the meticulous adjustments of the camera’s angle. All photographs must not be distorted, so we needed to make fine adjustments by looking at the grit lines displayed on the laptop. Each handscroll has a different size and texture of paper, decorated and framed with various kinds of mountings. Some relatively new pieces are perfectly rectangular, but others have creased or curled problems due to their old age. At first, it was very difficult to set up the camera to suit the nature of the objects, wasn’t it?

The process of adjusting the camera’s angle and colour balance.

Nanaka: Yes, it was. We struggled a lot, especially for the first two days. Even when we, the photographers, confirmed that the camera captured the perfect angle of the object through the laptop, we sometimes had to retake them for minor misalignments or blurring of the picture between the third person’s eyes or grids on the image, which the laptop’s display captured. All project members needed to be cautious and sensitive to those subtle differences as they will be long used as alternative resources of original works. 

Xinyao: In addition to these camera angle adjustments, we sometimes needed to change or extend studio equipment in the workshop to photograph large-scale collections. On those occasions, we checked the conditions of the room and the tools that we could use. When we had a hanging scroll larger than the whiteboard and tilted, we solved the problem by putting the cushions on top of the original board and having two people supporting the setting from the back, which was an idea that came from our discussions during our project. 

Nanaka: That was a tough one, but I was very happy when I could take the photo that met the required ratio and quality after trial and error!

Xinyao: Me too! As we got used to it a little more over time, we found a knack for taking good photographs and felt a sense of achievement. But to fulfil that, we all needed to collaborate and be creative to upload the best quality of images within the limited time, conditions, and environment. 

Nanaka: Yes, collaboration was key for successful digitisation! I believe this time, our effective communications and communicative and technical support engaged in overcoming accidental issues and delivering smooth projects. We all had different experiences and backgrounds, but that created a great synergy.

– What did we learn from the project? What type of skill do you think is expected for the digitisation project?

Nanaka: I found that digital cultural heritage is preserved through the meticulous and detailed efforts of interdisciplinary work, and the production of individual archival images has proved to require considerable time and energy, including studio setting to granular attention to detail, which I didn’t realise before. As mentioned earlier, each object is unique in form, scale, and quality. Those involved in digitisation need to observe and understand these subtle qualities, the importance of cultural preservation and the academic perspective of the researcher, and then use their photographic equipment very skilfully in the limited time available.

Besides that, it was striking for me to hear and learn some relevant topics directly from Dr Ryoko, a specialist with a rich experience in this field. For example, the importance of digital archives is being reassessed in Japan for the preservation of cultural heritage against natural disasters after the experiences of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995 and the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011; growing interest in the educational and social significance of digital archives as a means of training the next generation of researchers; and the rapid changes in the methods of digital archiving with the development of digital technology over the past 30 years.

Xinyao: Since this was my first time touching ancient handscrolls, this internship helped me to demystify the museum art objects. My feeling toward museum objects changed from ‘sacred, fragile, and untouchable’ to entirely different. This perspective shift from a museumgoer into a museum staff let me rethink how my cognition of museum objects was trained by public education and then enhanced by how the museum displayed the objects. When I shifted to a museum staff’s perspective, everything I learned before experienced deconstruction. I found myself, for the first time, understanding a museum as a living organ that actively interacted with society. The white cubes are no longer shrines for the objects for the staff but are unlockable spaces that can be easily managed. Besides, I realised that the British Museum designed a hidden route for the staff alongside the route for the visitors with some intersections. This interplay of the hidden space and the revealed space, the accessible and inaccessible areas, deeply fascinated me. 

How to roll with a paper strip for safe retrieval and put in a box for safe preservation.

– What did you learn from the digitisation workshop in general?

Xinyao: I think this project has the potential to be promoted and expanded as a prototype, being imitated by other museums and cultural institutions, as it would be beneficial to understand the importance of cultural heritage and the role of world museums. To be honest, I hope that in the future, we will be able to not only digitise the handscrolls for the researchers but also digitise and share the process of how we digitise and handle the museum objects with a broader public. 

Nanaka: I agree with that. As you and Dr Ryoko mentioned, for a project that was fully feasible for students and early-career researchers with the instruction of experts and professionals, there is a great deal of new knowledge to be gained. As a student of Japanese studies, being able to participate in this project was a very valuable opportunity. Not only did it allow me to work directly with objects and understand the significance of digitisation and digital archiving, but it also made me reconsider the questions; what is archiving, how and by whom it’s operated, and how it links to current art historiography. Based on this experience, I would like to continue thinking about these questions in the future.

Xinyao ​Lu​
MA in History of Art and Archaeology of East Asia, SOAS

Nanaka Kishi
MA in Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies, UEA

Xinyao ​Lu​ 
MA in History of Art and Archaeology of East Asia, SOAS

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