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Technical Workshops of Digital Archiving Japanese collection at the Sainsbury Centre

As a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, many institutions were forced to temporarily close their doors to the public. Deemed as sites where the risk of viral transmission was high, museums, which rely heavily on public interaction in their physical institutions, were left in a precarious position whereby their communicative strategies to interact with the public were limited. This encouraged museums to develop their existing digital resources so that they could fully showcase their permanent collections, despite the ramifications of the pandemic.

One institution that joined this initiative was The Sainsbury Centre , located in Norwich. Among the Sainsbury Centre’s collection are 30 magnificent Japanese hanging scrolls which showcase over 1,000 years of artistry in painting and calligraphy. With the largest reaching 185cm in height (pictured right), the sheer size coupled with the textile material of the hanging scrolls raised uncertainties regarding their effective digitization. Consequently, the Sainsbury Centre enlisted the expertise of staff from the Art Research Centre (ARC) of Ritsumeikan University, located in Japan, and from SISJAC.

Led by Professor Ryo Akama – the Deputy-director of the ARC – a live, three-hour, technical workshop saw international exchange of ideas regarding the effective digitisation of hanging scrolls, while updating attendees on the current standards for digital archiving.

In addition, Professor Akama provided a comprehensive procedure for digitisation, from setting up the equipment to capturing the perfect photograph. He spoke passionately about the high-quality images that researchers could capture when using this procedure. In response to those who questioned whether a professional photographer could capture a better photograph, Professor Akama convincingly argued that researchers know both the necessary areas that need to be photographed on an object and how the object should appear in a photograph, whereas a photographer will capture a photograph according to their own aesthetic standards. As such, he claimed that researchers will always capture better photographs than professional photographers.

The event was livestreamed, reaching students, researchers, and archivists from both England and Japan. Through its subtitled recording (which will shortly be uploaded to the SISJAC website), the workshop will exist as a cutting-edge resource for future research and teaching, highlighting the great impact of this event on our community.

Following the three-hour technical workshop, the Norwich-based digitisation team, which was comprised of SISJAC staff, the Sainsbury Centre staff and students on SISJAC’s MA course in Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies, embarked on the somewhat rocky process of digitising the hanging scrolls. As we all know, technology has a habit of acting-up when we least want it to, and the technical hitches that we faced greatly lengthened the time taken to digitise the scrolls; while Professor Akama had remarked that an expert can digitise one hanging scroll in five minutes, our first attempt took a little under one hour! However, with time and perseverance came improvement, and the collaborative efforts of those who were involved saw the successful digitisation of 25 hanging scrolls.

The process was meticulous, requiring a sharp-eye and extensive teamwork. In everyday life we are used to editing photos to be straight or flat after taking them, but this compromises on the quality of the image. Therefore, each photograph had to be scrutinised and the camera adjusted manually, before moving on to the next photograph. This was done by triangulating information between electronic devices, as after a photograph was taken on a camera the image was immediately viewed on a computer, to be scrutinised for quality.

The extensive teamwork and dedication of those involved made this workshop educational, enjoyable and a huge success. On behalf of the Norwich-based digitisation team and SISJAC, I would like to thank the ARC and the Sainsbury Centre for their continued support and wish them the best with their digitisation projects, which will surely be valuable resources for academic research and public enjoyment. I would also like to congratulate SISJAC on running a wonderful workshop and I look forward to participating in their future projects.

This project is funded by the International Joint Digital Archiving Center for Japanese Art and Culture (ARC-iJAC) and is part of SISJAC’s Digital Japan Project.

Naomi Hughes-White
MA student in Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies

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