Establishing conservation in an unconventional venue in Okinawa

Anya Dani


A new conservation initiative was recently established at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST). The OIST Conservation Project was envisioned as a way to use the cutting edge scientific resources available at the Institute to help in the preservation and study of Okinawan cultural property. Reversing the usual order, the project was founded without already having an art collection or museum partner. This presentation will discuss the creation of the OIST Conservation Project, including setting up a conservation lab at a science university and securing museum partners, followed by a description of recent accomplishments in the investigation of Okinawan cultural materials.

As a new international and interdisciplinary science university located in Okinawa, OIST epitomizes a contemporary situation. The Institute strives to reinvent how Japanese higher education approaches science while also giving back to the Okinawan community. Located on a small island south of the Japanese mainland, modern technology keeps OIST connected with the rest of the world and facilitates OIST’s researchers in their ability to make advancements in their fields. In turn, the Okinawan islands (formerly the Ryukyu kingdom) have an interesting international history of their own, which has greatly influenced Okinawa’s art and culture. Additionally, the unforgiving climate combined with destruction associated with World War II makes the preservation of Okinawa’s cultural property a critical issue. OIST’s access to an abundance of innovative scientific tools has sparked creative thinking in the study of Okinawan artifacts.

With the lofty goals of contributing to the preservation of Okinawan culture and embarking on exciting art and science collaborations that would captivate the public, OIST was put in the position of “selling” its proposed conservation initiative to local museums, as their involvement is critical to the success of the program. In time, the cooperation of two institutions, the Yomitan Village History Folklore Museum and the Tsuboya Pottery Museum, was secured. These art and science collaborations involve conservation treatment as well as research into the museums’ collections. For example, the unique environment at OIST has allowed the before-treatment examination of two sanshins (Okinawan string instruments) to lead to investigations into the origin of their leather coverings using mass spectroscopy to identify their proteins as well as experiments with DNA sequencing. OIST researchers are working to overcome the challenges of degradation and contamination in the analysis of these sanshins’ unique leather coverings.

Ceramics have also played an important role in Okinawa. Therefore, the Conservation Project is working to characterize and provide a deeper understanding of Okinawan ceramics. The latest generation of X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometers and X-Ray Diffractometers are being used in the investigation of these ceramics to identify materials, understand past manufacturing techniques, and determine firing temperatures. Most notably, this information will be used to differentiate between ceramics made on the Okinawan mainland and nearby Ishigaki Island. Other techniques under consideration for this project include X-Ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy and X-Ray Absorption Near Edge Structure (XANES) Spectroscopy.

The OIST Conservation Project has established a new model for how a conservation project can function. This international yet remote setting allows for a contemporary take on a conservation lab venue.

Download full article

2013 | Indianapolis | Volume 20