41st Annual Meeting – Objects Session, May 30, “Establishing Conservation in an Unconventional Venue in Okinawa” by Anya McDavis-Conway

Ms. Conway’s paper presented multiple themes: the establishment of a new conservation lab, brief history of Okinawa, and cultural materials and their subsequent materials research and treatment. What is particularly different about the first theme is that the Conservation Laboratory was begun without a museum collection. The laboratory was established within the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) – a new, international research university staffed with 50% Japanese and 50% international staff. OIST applies advanced technology while using an interdisciplinary approach to higher education, and includes giving back to the Okinawan community in its mission statement. OIST President Jonathan Darfan was interested by the merging of art and science and wanted the conservation lab to be an important part of community engagement. Thus, with the establishment of the conservation laboratory, it was incumbent upon the conservator to find her museum collection partners.
Anya described this process as “setting up conservation in reverse”, and stated that the Okinawans were rather suspicious of her. I can believe their skepticism: “why would I want to had over my collections to a non-Okinawan” (prevalent in an island with a history of occupation) or: “Why are you doing this for free?”. Anya took time to visit the museums, got to know the only Okinawan conservators, a paper conservator named Toma-san and his son. She learned from him and other museum staff that all other treatments would either not get done or would be sent off the island (likely to Japan). Occasionally there was someone on Okinawa who would do lacquer repairs, and I wondered if they would be the gold repairs that we see on Asian ceramics sometimes.
Eventually Anya found two partners in the Yomitan Village History Folklore Museum, a small historical museum focusing on the small port of Yomitan. The other was the Tsuboya Pottery Museum. In the Yomitan museum, there was a definite need for collections improvements and conservation. The museum is located next to Zakimi Castle, which meant that there were also archaeological finds, in addition to historic, in the collection. There is also a traditional house, which was presented kind of like a period room (but house).
Tsubo means pottery in Okinawan (the Tsuboya Museum), and the curators there are very interested in pottery technology. Anya’s lab and connections in OIST are a perfect fit for their interests, and she discusses, later, the pottery research project they begin together.
Once Anya began getting treatments, she quickly realized that she needed more space than her 1/2 counter in OIST’s biology lab that she was given initially. I must think that they intended to provide more space, but perhaps wanted to wait until the projects actually came. OIST ultimately provided a decent lab space and some analytical equipment. Anya worked with the physicists to obtain such equipment: a Raman with a horizontal exit so objects can be placed next to it for analysis without sampling them, FTIR with ATR and, coming soon, a p-XRF. Jennifer Mass, the scientist from the Winterthur program, was also able to consult, in person, in the analytical set-up.
Interesting investigations were discussed. The first described looked at the leather on sanshins, which are three-stringed instruments that look a little like a banjo. They were originally played at the Royal Court, but now are played by more and more people. The sound box of the sanshin is usually covered in python skin, which is imported from the mainland. The two that were brought into Anya’s lab, however, were not made with python. Their origin was not easily detectable, so Anya worked with Sasha Mikayav, a scientist at OIST, to look into DNA sequencing for identification. The skins were ultimately too contaminated to provide good data, and Sasha recommended liquid chromatography – mass spectrometry instead. They prepared a sample from a cowhide from a music store as a control/test, and this was successfully identified as bovine. They will analyze other types of skins as they obtain them, and then test the sanshins after. But the fragile leather could wait no longer, and losses were filled with Japanese tissue toned with Golden acrylic emulsion paints and tacked in place with methyl cellulose. She made appropriate storage boxes and mounts for the sanshins after treatment because she thought it would begin a conversation about collections housing. I am curious if this worked, as it was an interesting decision.
The other major project begun is the pottery analysis project undertaken by Anya, OIST and the Tsuboya Pottery Museum. They are beginning to characterize pottery – both individually and as a group – using pXRF and XRD. They will be working with an Okinawan geologist to look at sources, tempers and inclusions using thin sections and traditional petrography. This project is the beginning of a long collaboration, as Okinawa has a long history and tradition of pottery making, and it has never before been systematically analyzed. Importantly, Anya wants to know if anyone in the audience had Okinawan pottery in its collections. If so, she wants to know! Please contact her if you have information on Okinawan pottery and/or specimens in your collections. Her information is in the AIC directory.