Joanne Bernardi and Nora Dimmock
Re-Envisioning Japan: Japan as Destination in 20th Century Visual and Material Culture (REJ) conjoins a collaboratively built digital environment with the physical, personal collection of travel, tourism, and educational ephemera from which it evolved (Bernardi). Documenting changing images of Japan and its place in the world in the early to mid-twentieth century, the digital archive is comprised of artifacts but is in itself an artifact, a creatively curated representation of representations. Digital environments enable us to see things differently, and, as REJ’s title suggests, the project capitalizes on this virtue. Its direction has been shaped by the convergence between innovative scholarship in material culture studies and digital humanities (DH), giving it purpose as a recuperative project grounded in a uniquely syncretic relationship between material and digital worlds. History is not exclusively embedded in words; objects also resonate with historical voice, and digital space allows the objects in the REJ collection to resonate in ways that are not easily contained by the written word alone. The project’s focus on the material remains of the past offers opportunities to rethink large historical processes through the careful consideration of seemingly trivial objects, uncover and explore past lives and individual interactions, and test assumptions about the present by interrogating the past.
REJ depends on collaboration between the authors. As a professor of Japanese and Film and Media Studies at the University of Rochester (Joanne Bernardi) and director of the university’s Digital Humanities Center (Nora Dimmock), we each bring different perspectives, experience, and areas of expertise to the project, shaping it in ways that challenge conventional modes of scholarly communication and knowledge production. REJ is about making — making a physical collection of objects, a critical digital archive, and a new perspective on the past through digital scholarship. Collaboration challenges us to question the conventional definitions of our disciplinary domains, humanities scholarship, and librarianship, forcing us to negotiate not only the unique narratives that historical objects carry but also the traditional structures created to categorize and contain them.
The core REJ team includes two staff members of the Digital Humanities Center who specialize in digital imaging and programming. They have been involved in REJ since it became a collaborative project in 2011. In addition, undergraduate and graduate students, a postdoctoral fellow specializing in metadata curation for visual and material culture, and other library staff members have contributed to the project in important ways. Together we have worked toward building a digital site that embodies scholarship and functions as a versatile pedagogical and research tool, facilitating access to and analysis of a unique collection of primary sources. Expanding into digital space has allowed us to experiment with different ways to present the collection’s wide variety of media in order to best accommodate a diversity of formats. These media range from postcards, photographs, stereographs, and glass lantern slides to travel brochures, guidebooks, sheet music, and small-gauge films.
REJ seems to confirm Peter N. Miller’s (2014) observation in “How Objects Speak” that “the digital, far from killing the material world, seems only to have intensified our attachment to it.” The complementary process of creating the best possible digital copies for each medium and object and designing the most effective digital environment for their presentation is contingent upon interaction between the digital and physical worlds. The ongoing process of building the REJ digital archive has made us more sensitive to how objects inform us of the past, and how digital tools can intercede to make that awareness immediate and deep. Online collections like REJ invite us to interrogate enduring and dominant historical narratives. As Miller notes, these narratives have become abstracted over time, detached from earlier practices that interpreted the past through the world of things. REJ gives us access to the world of tangible things marked by traces of human touch, opening up possibilities to comprehend life in twentieth-century Japan on a granular level through narratives of personal use and encounters embodied by everyday objects. Due to the flexibility and scale of the digital environment, we can also look for patterns and relationships that add nuance to our understanding of the encounters between diverse cultures and societies over time (Manovich).
In this chapter we focus on our effort to move beyond creating a digital presence for ephemeral objects toward redefining the digital archive as critical scholarship. The first section, “The Physical Archive,” describes REJ’s genesis as object-based research through the creation of a personal research and teaching collection of ephemeral objects. REJ’s early development helped establish the Digital Humanities Center’s digitization program. The second section, “The Digital Archive,” details the correlation between the project’s expansion into a digital space and the development of new practices for incorporating a wide range of material culture objects into digital scholarship. In the third and final section, “The Archive as Matter,” we outline plans for REJ’s future.
REJ was motivated by Joanne Bernardi’s previous research on silent Japanese cinema in the context of the country’s rapid-fire cultural transformations during the first decades of the twentieth century. Her engagement with visual images lost to time led to a preoccupation with the relationship between objects and history: how material loss affects the history-making process, the role of objects and images in forging global connections, and the relationship between material culture (as discrete physical artifacts and historical evidence) and the written word as historical narrative. The REJ collection began in 2000 with her search for photographic images of early twentieth-century Japan that could bring the landscape and life of that period into sharper focus. She sought out images of Japan that could complement her familiarity with early and silent films from Europe, the United States, and (to a much lesser extent) other parts of the world, providing a better understanding of Japan’s place in that world. She was not looking for photographic images in books — “disembodied” photographic images as illustrations — but rather photographs as objects, “time-bound physical artifacts” (Sandweiss), like moving images themselves.
The Internet’s unprecedented capacity to facilitate access to a wide range of material culture on a massive scale was key to the development of this project. Postcards from the 1900s–30s that were readily available through online auctions seeded the physical collection. Bernardi was initially drawn to postcards as visual records of place, especially the urban landscapes more likely to have been captured on film. She soon came to appreciate the many other ways that postcards connect us to the past: as traces of relationships, such as picture postcard exchanges between pen pals or missives that were often deeply personal; as visual records of Japan’s presence at world’s fairs and expositions in Europe and America; and as glimpses of Japan’s rising profile in the international world order (“Our Allies” and “Flags of All Nations”). She even discovered images of a surprising number of imaginary Japans, such as the Japanese Village in Massachusetts (Wonderland Amusement Park at Revere Beach), described in a caption as a “15 minute tour of the Flowery Kingdom,” complete with its own “Mt. Geisha.”
Writing about the complicated origins of the early travel film genre, Tom Gunning (2006) describes turn-of-the-century and early twentieth-century travel and its relationship to travel imagery as “a means of appropriating the world through images,” noting the role postcards played in this phenomenon (27). The nature of postcards as embodiments of image and movement (travel by people and the circulation of things) as well as evidence of place helped determine REJ’s focus on objects belonging to broadly defined categories. The contours of the collection’s conceptual, chronological, and generic parameters were refined with less interest in superlative collecting than in exploring the range and variety of ephemeral objects encountered, salvaged, and offered for sale from the “infinite archive of the past.”
Travel- and education-related objects form the bulk of the collection and fall into working categories that complement each other in useful ways. “Tourist Japan” was an early title for the project, linking the virtual armchair traveler reading about Japan with tourists moving through physical space. The words “tourist” and “tourism” can denote passive consumers and mindless consumption, but they can also be flexible and inclusive. The rise of twentieth-century tourism is central to understanding twentieth-century cultural flow and identity; the tourist perspective is personal, allowing for a multiplicity of narrative perspectives.
Each encounter with a used object brought the past into sharper focus through the material evidence of personal experience. Victoria Kelley (2015) describes objects looked at from this perspective as “bearers of trace, scarred with the markers of time and use” (Kelley). When postcards issued by Japanese and U.S. shipping companies led to the discovery of travel brochures and other tourism ephemera, these things evoked a connection with the past that was stunningly direct. Such artifacts are not just evidence of a particular mode of transportation, travel, and leisure at a specific historical moment. In addition to their evidentiary value, informing us of the cultural, political, and economic systems that produced them, they are immediate links to the people who used them. In fact, the criteria for selecting objects for the REJ collection were increasingly determined by an impulse to better understand the people and acts behind the objects, as well as the layered contexts for their production and circulation. A distinction — and a balance — between the particular (the object, the detail, the personal) and the general (the object’s historical context, the larger picture, the object in public space) was necessary to maintain a focus on the objects themselves. This distinction and balance were also conducive to teaching and learning.
A productive, reciprocal relationship exists between digital scholarship and pedagogy. “Tourist Japan,” a course first designed in 2002 to complement Bernardi’s research, fulfills the function of mediating between REJ’s personal and public dimensions. This Japanese studies course uses travel and tourism culture to illuminate the relationship between Japan’s modernization processes and identity formation. Students work with objects in the REJ collection as an alternative approach to understanding twentieth-century Japan and patterns of human interaction and cross-cultural exchange. Haptic appreciation of the REJ collection plays a key role in class, as students explore how the meaning of things changes over time and according to context. They learn how material culture both embodies and acts on public and personal biases by curating their own digital exhibits using objects in the collection. Curation becomes an exercise in material culture studies and digitally mediated humanistic inquiry.
Library collaboration, which began in 2011, was motivated by the need to make the REJ collection more accessible to students in “Tourist Japan.” Nora Dimmock, then head of the Multimedia Center, took on the project of digitizing objects in the REJ collection so they could be more easily studied, reused, and re-contextualized by students in the course. She joined the project at a critical turning point. REJ almost came to a standstill when it became clear that the draft outline for a book manuscript failed to reflect the project’s premise and scope as object-based scholarship. A conventional book format could only accommodate a limited number of illustrations, and the wide range of media and the complex relationships between individual objects would need to be crowbarred into a limited number of chapters. A book format also impeded timely collaboration with researchers working in other disciplines who could enrich the collection’s interpretation by studying it from different perspectives. It thus became increasingly evident that digitization and online access facilitating a curated presentation of the collection in a meaningful context would be the best way to share this work.
The Digital Archive
REJ and the Digital Humanities Center both began at roughly the same time, each evolving from a need to expand the boundaries of not only physical and virtual space but also traditional modes of scholarly communication. Since their inception, each has been in a constant state of transformation, scaling up slowly based on the availability of human, capital, and intellectual resources. REJ and the Digital Humanities Center have yet to reach their full potential, but together they comprise a faculty-library collaboration developing over the course of three distinct phases, with the third and final phase just beginning.
The first phase was all about creating: the collaboration between the library and REJ, the website, and the digital project. The collaboration began as an extension of the library’s reserves processing program. REJ needed a circulation point where students in “Tourist Japan” could access a selection of materials from the collection to complete digital exhibit curation assignments. Like many academic libraries in 2010, only one librarian provided DH support on an ad-hoc basis (Posner 44). As the head of the library’s Multimedia Center, Dimmock straddled the fence between providing traditional library services and entering into new collaborations with faculty that might require long-term commitment of staff time and library resources.
In the beginning, digitization was cobbled together because the library had no commitment beyond copying services. The staff produced JPEG copies on inexpensive flatbed scanners at a resolution of 150 dots per inch (DPI) and uploaded them to a website created by central university IT staff. As collection items were dropped off to be scanned, staff stockpiled them to work on later, during lulls in digitizing material for course reserves and special projects. The library lacked formal structures to support digital scholarship during this phase of development. Staff essentially created a program to support the project surreptitiously because it made sense and helped forge new library practices at the same time.
The second phase of the project focused on building a new platform for the digital project as well as a new digital humanities focus in the library. At this time, Rochester was using digital humanities methods and projects to augment traditional scholarship by adding a lab section to a traditional humanities course. This structure allowed faculty and library collaborations to flourish. REJ expanded that model to include support for individual faculty research. Such an expansion required deft negotiation with the library’s network and systems administration units for server space for high-quality images and a fresh WordPress install. More important, it emphasized the need for a digitization center for faculty research. At every evolution, REJ challenged the status quo in a way that was instrumental to establishing a legitimate digital humanities program, converting the Multimedia Center into the Digital Humanities Center and transforming library practice from knowledge organization to knowledge creation.
In 2013, the development of the current REJ WordPress site was constrained by a major factor. The designer/developer assigned to the project was a temporary staff member who could not devote the time needed to fully understand REJ as a large-scale, ongoing work of digital scholarship. Grateful for any assistance, we failed to exert sufficient editorial control over the design process, resulting in a trade-off between interface aesthetics and functionality. REJ’s overall design is beautiful, but the overly customized WordPress theme is nearly impossible to change. This design makes the archive seem inert, masking its continuous transformation as new resources, objects, and data are added. Another problem with the current platform is its purely visual navigation. Adding metadata to the images would require a manual edit of each image in the interface, a process too cumbersome to manage. The decision to focus solely on the images and not display the metadata was a lost opportunity to place the images in context.
The process of creating the basic architecture for the REJ digital archive established a pattern of careful negotiation between the objects in the physical collection, their digital surrogates, and the digital environment developed for them. In addition to the complex connections between individual objects in the REJ collection, this negotiation between physical and digital worlds makes the project unique. The online archive’s structure was designed from the start to mirror the decisions made while collating, classifying, and cataloging objects in the physical collection. The REJ digital archive’s five core heterarchical categories (three based on function and two on format) reflect the original taxonomy expressly devised for the REJ physical collection. In the WordPress platform, these categories are translated into five galleries (“Edification & Information,” “Leisure & Entertainment,” “Moving Images,” “Postcards,” and “Tourism & Travel”) that are then divided into subcategories. The result is a visualization of the curatorial deliberations that shaped the physical collection. In digital space, taxonomy functions as a powerful rhetorical tool, unmasking the curatorial process of creating the collection as well as its capacity to make meaning. This initial step in building the online archive was a critical point in the project’s development as scholarship. We realized a coherent and comprehensive visualization of an abstract conceptual framework that was difficult, if not impossible, to express through words on paper.
REJ’s success and the popularity of Rochester’s digital humanities lab courses persuaded the library to make a significant investment in DH, funding both new and upgraded staff positions (a GIS Research Specialist, Digital Humanities Programmer, and Digitization Specialist) in spring 2013 and establishing a digitization program in the center. This support was also the result of a shift in institutional priorities from viewing digitization as a supplemental activity offered by staff to recognizing it as a core function of the center’s team. The team now had access to a high-resolution camera and copy stand as well as high-quality scanners with the ability to color-correct and produce preservation quality, 600-DPI TIFFs. The digitization workflow for REJ transitioned from a low- to high-priority project at the center. The library’s commitment also led to more institutional support: a grant funding the inspection, repair, and digitization of 180 small-gauge films in the REJ collection. This grant also covered the cost of digitizing 46 specially commissioned live recordings of songs in the sheet music collection.
When we began populating the site in 2014, we made decisions about representation through considerations of interface, display, and materiality. Displaying the collection’s wide range of formats to best represent physical objects in a two-dimensional environment was challenging. Many team meetings led to discussions about representing material objects and how to incorporate them into REJ. We decided to use a page-turning app, for example, to display sheet music and other multi-page publications. Postcard fronts and backs are scanned separately and then stitched together so both sides can be displayed simultaneously. We also incorporated light box features that allow people to zoom in on individual images. The films are a unique feature, and we have recuperated, repaired, and digitized 180 titles so far. They represent critical intersections between small-gauge film, tourism, and education through the 1970s. We categorized them by gauge in the main navigation scheme, but they are accessible within each of these subcategories on a custom-built timeline, allowing people to search for them according to their date of creation.
At some point during this work we realized the digitization workflow was driving the design, just as the original WordPress platform drove the site architecture. Our focus was on creating a critical mass so that we could determine the digital archive’s capabilities. We were moving from one format to another in an attempt to fill out the archive’s framework, which we could then use to demonstrate and discover how researchers and scholars might use the digital environment and its materials. We were looking to the archive itself to give us a better understanding of its potential as digital scholarship. The archive evolved through a process of repeatedly asking ourselves what we wanted it to achieve. In this respect, its design was analogous to that of any artifact created through problem definition (a perceived gap in knowledge) and the iterative exploration of possibilities to solve that problem in the best possible way (Ulrich). In the early stages of our collaboration, we considered the online space to be a “digital component” of a “twin project” also involving a scholarly monograph. In hindsight, this approach was problematic. The implication that a digital entity cannot stand alone as scholarship hobbled REJ’s development at the intersection of material culture studies and digital humanities practice. Digital mediation initially facilitated access, investigation, instruction, and interpretation by others, but it was also a catalyst for meaning-making. Curation in digital space made the relationships between individual objects more obvious, revealing new possibilities for research and opportunities to rethink familiar questions. All collections excite us with their promise of discovery; online digital collections like REJ do so with unprecedented immediacy.
The Archive as Matter
REJ is now entering its third phase of development as a digital archive. This phase could be characterized as re-envisioning REJ. One challenge before us is how to position the project to contribute to the larger global research ecosystem defined by projects such as the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) and the Advanced Research Consortium’s catalogue. These projects represent the second generation of federated digital collections. First-generation projects start with databases, which ingest digital assets for discovery through a common web interface. Second-generation projects like DPLA start with metadata, which is aggregated across multiple databases and then accessed through a search interface that points to assets stewarded by individual memory institutions. The metadata for REJ exists, but it is not attached to each digital asset. With second-generation discovery in mind, we plan to migrate REJ to the Omeka content management platform. Omeka is built on a robust and extensible metadata-driven framework and offers several advantages over the current WordPress architecture. During this third phase, our focus will be on exposing the scholarship inherent in the curatorial process and developing the technology with a critical lens.
The REJ physical collection contains about 3,500 artifacts of material culture, and roughly 75 percent of it has been digitized and made available online. As we transition the digital archive to Omeka, stewardship of the physical collection will transition to the library’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. This transition will facilitate enhanced metadata, make the physical collection more accessible, and guarantee its preservation. In contrast to the REJ physical collection, the REJ digital archive is still young. Its life as scholarship has only begun. At this transitional moment, we need to regroup and reconsider the digital archive’s ostensible future and its shelf life — where it might be in 20 or 30 years.
Carole L. Palmer’s (2004) concept of the thematic research collection, which she describes as “specialized scholarly resources built for research support,” is a useful way to think of the REJ digital archive as we further develop it. REJ’s digital environment has many of the key attributes that Palmer identifies: it is electronic, “extensive but thematically coherent,” “structured but open-ended” (growing the archive’s architecture and its functionality is a prime objective), and “anchored” by a “core set of primary sources.” Palmer attends to the correspondence between thematic research collections and laboratory (or even collaboratory) settings familiar to the sciences: both contain research material and the tools to work with it. Thus, in both instances “scholarship is embedded in the product and its use.” However, much work remains to be done on REJ to create what Palmer calls a “contextual mass,” which “prioritizes the values and work practices of scholarly communities.” Collaboration has been an important objective for us throughout the project, and we are thinking of how to make the digital archive fully interactive, encouraging scholarship through contributions by registered users. We are also thinking of new tools to enhance research capability as well as ways to dynamically present fragile objects and less common media (e.g., film strips and Viewmaster slides). A spatial tool for researchers to create historic travel itineraries and new content based on the enhanced presentation of fragile objects (such as travel guides and maps) are in the works.
In addition to maximizing REJ’s scholarly impact by extending it with enriched metadata and contextual mass, we are planning an open-access, web-based publishing platform that will promote multimodal digital scholarship across disciplines. This publishing platform and journal will focus on object-based scholarship and pedagogy. Its working title, Routes, is inspired by James Clifford’s 1997 eponymous book about the complexities of cultural mobility and cultural encounters in the modern world. In this context, “routes” suggest the circulation of objects, trade, and pathways through collections and websites. The journal’s first issue will focus on projects using the REJ collection. The fluid, recombinatory capacity of a digital environment complements the exploratory and interpretive methods of inquiry intrinsic to the study of material culture. With digital technology’s capacity to enhance engagement with the material world, we hope to encourage reuse of the REJ archive and collection as well as a deeper appreciation of the intrinsic link between past lives and our present day.
1. See Bernardi, Re-Envisioning Japan (Credits) for a list of the individuals who have contributed to the project since its inception.
2. When she began collecting objects for what was to become the Re-Envisioning Japan collection, Bernardi had just completed a book about nonextant films from Japan’s silent era. She worked with metatextual and ancillary primary sources (e.g., scenarios, historiographical sources, trade publications, and fan magazines), and in this context surviving photographic images such as frame reproductions and publicity photographs acquired singular resonance.
3. This term is borrowed from Hitchcock’s post to the “Voices of the People” online symposium on The Many-Headed Monster history blog.
4. The process of devising categories and determining their relationship is described in more detail at Re-Envisioning Japan.
5. See, for example, Urry and Larsen’s work on the tourist gaze.
6. The syllabus for the current iteration of this course is available at Re-Envisioning Japan. An important venue for developing REJ, this course has evolved dramatically in correspondence with the project’s digital expansion. It is currently taught as a heuristic digital humanities lab in which students digitally and physically interact with the REJ digital archive as well as the objects in the collection. It is open (no prerequisites) to both graduate and undergraduate students. Parented by the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures (Japanese and Comparative Literature), it is cross-listed with the Film and Media Studies Program and the Department of English. Students interact with REJ objects to author their own Omeka exhibits as windows on Japan’s past.
7. See Nowviskie, who has written extensively about how academic libraries and librarians have responded to the need for the academy to accommodate new modes of digital scholarship and knowledge production, referring to covert operations like the University of Rochester’s Digital Humanities Center in its early stages as “path[es] to production for scholarly R&D” (53).
8. See Clement, Hagenmaier, and Knies, who assert that working in the digital medium influences editorial practice in a way that forges strong connections between the work of scholars, librarians, and archivists. Effective communication across the boundaries of disciplinary practice is a key factor in determining the success of large-scale digital collaborations like REJ.
9. Rhyne supports making a complete collection available online to offer researchers access to a more comprehensive understanding of the subject. This type of thinking also drove the production of images for REJ’s digital archive.
10. The authors are grateful to Kyle Parry, 2015–2017 CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for Visual and Cultural Studies, University of Rochester, for helping us with REJ’s redesign and to refine our vision for this journal.
Bernardi, Joanne. Re-Envisioning Japan: Japan as Destination in 20th Century Visual and Material Culture. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Digital Scholarship Lab, River Campus Libraries. First Word Press iteration (2013–16): http://humanities.lib.rochester.edu/rej. New Omeka site (2017): https://rej.lib.rochester.edu/.
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Urry, John, and Jonas Larsen. The Tourist Gaze 3.0. London: Sage, 2011.