This weekend the Pitt Rivers Museum’s most recent special exhibition, Surviving Tsunami, has closed. The exhibition featured visual material from an on-going conservation project in Rikuzentakata, in northern Japan, where the 2011 Tsunami destroyed two museums and a library. These libraries had held valuable photographs documenting life in the Tohoku region of Japan over the last century.
The Tsunami destroyed almost all houses and large buildings in Rikuzentakata, a coastal city of over 23,000, and killed 2000 of its citizens. After the initial disaster relief process, 60 volunteers, made up of locals, began attempting to restore the city’s prized photographic material, including prints, glass plates and film negatives. The disaster had left the photographs waterlogged, ripped and covered in mud. The photographs first needed to be dried and then digitized in order to protect them from damage in the future. The exhibition at the Pitt Rivers featured photographs of the restored artifacts, but also of the restorative process, which seemed as valuable as the original photographs themselves. I could see the care and patience of the volunteers in the photos that captured them wearing masks and gloves to protect a specific glass plate from the early 20th-century blades which had to be used to carefully separate 1600 glass plates stuck together with water. The process took time; no modern technology could be used on the outdated artifacts. The photographs that had come out of the restorative were noticeably permanently damaged by the Tsunami, but that seemed, in a way, to add to the history they documented. The exhibition was small and took very little time out of my day; However, I have continued to think about the love that the citizens of Rikuzentakata clearly felt for their city. These people were willing to work hard to restore the only remnants of their local history when the rest of their city was also in dire need of repair.