The Multidisciplinary DH Classroom: Material Culture meets Digital Curation in Re-Envisioning Japan

This is a gust post by Joanne Bernardi

This post introduces readers to Re-Envisioning Japan: Japan as Destination in 20th Century Visual and Material Culture (REJ), a DH project conjoining a personal collection of early-to-mid-twentieth century travel, education, and entertainment ephemera with a collaboratively built, interactive multimedia archive. I also briefly introduce REJ’s companion course, “Tourist Japan,” which has grown in tandem with REJ into a multidisciplinary, collaborative DH lab course. I developed REJ’s online presence in collaboration with Digital Scholarship at the University of Rochester River Campus Libraries, where REJ is one of the oldest faculty-library DH projects. We built REJ’s first digital archive in WordPress in 2013 and migrated it to the current Omeka iteration in 2017. REJ’s conceptual origins date back to 2000 when I started collecting vintage ephemera to study representations of Japan and its place in the world (how Japan defined itself and was defined by others) in common-use objects and their production, use, and exchange. In 2002, I designed Tourist Japan to complement this research. REJ became a DH project ten years later when I collaborated with library colleagues to digitize my growing collection and design a digital environment for their dynamic display. We initially turned to digital technology to facilitate collection access and use. Instead, it shifted our objective from knowledge organization to knowledge creation.

I give only an overview of the REJ collection here, but I have written about its parameters in more detail elsewhere. As a corpus for object-based and object-driven research and teaching, the organically evolving, heterogenous collection includes objects ranging from bibliographic and other print ephemera (e.g., postcards, brochures, guidebooks, stereographs, photographs, sheet music, maps, etc,) to three-dimensional souvenirs, novelties, glass lantern slides, and films. Making and curating digital surrogates for the collection’s diverse media formats has entailed thoughtful negotiation between the material and digital worlds. From the start, digitizing each object involved reiteratively exploring ways to emphasize its materiality.

Postcards comprise the REJ collection’s most represented format, and postcards of urban sites seeded the collection. Many are hand-colored with the same dyes used to add color to moving images.

Users can stream 46 pieces of Japan-related sheet music in the REJ digital archive specially recorded for the project.

The ability to stream many of the REJ collection’s 8mm, Super 8mm, or 16 mm films in context is one of REJ’s unique features. The customized viewing window allows a choice of variable viewing speeds (6 to 24 fps, or frames per second).

We prioritized creating a digital environment for these objects that would go beyond recuperation and accessibility to generating new pathways for discovery, connections, collaboration, and reuse. In designing the prototype WordPress archive, we drew on Carole Palmer’s idea of a Thematic Research Collection: a web-based resource in which scholarship is embedded in both the product and its use. Migrating REJ to Omeka made it more flexible, and Omeka’s Dublin Core interface facilitated consistent, detailed, and standards-based metadata. It facilitated collaborative student assignments that gave students opportunities to work interactively with the archive, engaging in object analysis, contextual metadata management, and collectively curated digital exhibitions. As an open-ended project, however, REJ remains a work in progress. 

For example, the 2017 migration introduced new challenges. Most significantly, in streamlining the Omeka site’s navigation to prioritize format, we lost thematic categories that were part of the taxonomy I originally designed for organizing the collection in WordPress. After the migration, we realized we had overestimated options to introduce a theme-based organizational schema without compromising our navigational improvement. This was a critical issue because the original WordPress hierarchical schema mirrored my intellectual work in curating the physical collection. In addition, minor mechanical problems, like duplicate records mistakenly created during the migration and inconsistent metadata, cascaded into structural issues we are still untangling. Finally, after the migration, I was overly eager to have Tourist Japan students engage with and contribute to the new Omeka site. They practiced creating metadata in a separate Omeka “sandbox” site but completed metadata and curatorial assignments by entering data and building exhibits in the new Omeka site. This presented additional opportunities for error. 

Migrating REJ from WordPress to Omeka in 2017 facilitated standardized and collaborative metadata practice.

REJ was the library’s first Omeka project, and the REJ team has acquired more experience with the platform since then. The recent years of Covid restrictions created a hiatus from collaboration, allowing us the critical distance to reassess both REJ and Tourist Japan with a fresh perspective. We are now focused on “cleaning-up” the Omeka site in preparation for another migration, this time to Omeka S. This will give us more opportunities to integrate the project’s research, teaching, and collaborative objectives. A corner of the new site will be dedicated to featuring student work assigned in Tourist Japan. Working directly with objects is always ideal but the pandemic taught me that using the collection remotely is also worthwhile. Featuring student work helps model REJ’s pedagogical versatility for other potential users. 

In this way, REJ shifted from individual research (and a pedagogical intervention to introduce ephemeral objects in the Asian Studies curriculum) to a multidisciplinary, technologically extended faculty-library-student collaboration. Members of the core REJ team (faculty, staff, postdoctoral, graduate, and undergraduate students) have contributed to the design and implementation of the digital archive, drawing on diverse backgrounds in Anthropology, Art History, Digital Humanities, Digital Media and Film Studies, East Asian Studies, History, Visual and Cultural Studies, and Film Preservation and Archiving. REJ in turn helped develop River Campus Libraries’ cultural heritage digitization workflow, and it set a precedent for the library’s subsequent Omeka-based projects. 

In the remainder of this post, I introduce REJ’s dedicated course, Tourist Japan, and how I integrate the course, the collection, and the digital archive. Readers can access a streamlined version of a recent course syllabus on REJ. This version notably differs from the first syllabus I designed almost twenty years ago. The general premise and several main objectives remain the same, but students can now access and peruse digitized collection objects while gaining hands-on experience in using digital technology for humanities research. Paradoxically, student engagement in haptic, exploratory appreciation of material culture has increased directly in proportion to the course’s growing focus on digital pedagogy. This brings to mind Peter N. Miller’s observation that “[t]he digital, far from killing the material world, seems only to have intensified our attachment to it.” Tourist Japan assignments and in-class exercises entail spending more time engaged in close interpretations of physical objects. Secondary source readings remain key to class discussions, but their focus tends to be less “text-bound” —

centered on concepts or events that can become abstracted through the written word—when we can cite or turn to material objects as examples for whatever topic is at hand.

A postcard of tea servers at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair is one example of an object that can be linked to other related online content, helping users understand broader historical contexts. In this case, Densho’s oral history project includes the 2004 recollections of Mae Kanazawa Hara, one of these servers. See 

Now that students in Tourist Japan spend more time interacting with the REJ collection and learning to work in Omeka, the course has become more collaborative and multidisciplinary, bridging academic inquiry with curatorial practice. During the first two weeks, students work with colleagues in the library’s Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation to learn best practices in working with special collections and creating metadata. The first homework assignment requires students to peruse the Omeka archive to familiarize themselves with REJ’s heterogeneous nature, and then write a brief response on one digitized film and one object in another format. I also show them “The World’s Fair in a Nutshell,” an “Object Encounter” that I devised with REJ collaborators as a prototype curatorial feature in Omeka. This particular feature was built with a plug-in that is not reliably sustainable, but the purpose of the assignment, which can be realized by other means (e.g. video essay, slide presentation), is to create a visual exploration of an object with a minimum of narrative intervention. The concept is inspired by Jules David Prown’s step-by-step process of material culture analysis that advances through successive stages of description, deduction, speculation, and interpretation. The Object Encounter is therefore a visualization, in digital space, of the process that occurs in that singular moment when an encounter with an object transforms that tangible object into an intangible experience. 

Modeled on Jules David Prown’s step-by-step approach to material culture, “Object Encounters” forge connections with human experience through the narratives embodied by individual objects.

Throughout the course, I scaffold in classroom exercises providing students with conceptual and technical skills that will help them make their own Object Encounter that requires the careful observance, interpretation, and online curation of an object or group of objects. Students always work in pairs or groups, and the midterm assignment always involves creating metadata in the dedicated Omeka sandbox site for the objects they choose to use in creating their final project. Especially through the process of building their final project, students learn firsthand that the questions we ask of an object determine its levels of meaning. Tourist Japan students have always worked directly with objects in the REJ collection as an alternative approach to understanding twentieth-century Japan through patterns of production and use, human interaction, and transcultural exchange. Introducing the REJ archive as a pedagogical tool enabled me to transform the course into a heuristic digital humanities lab, where students can interact with the archive and learn the skills and intellectual processes involved in describing and curating an object or collection while haptically studying the objects in hand.

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