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Pictures Without Words: The Journey to Identify Archival Images

Nagara Gawa Railway Bridge after 1891 earthquake. Photo by Kin Miyashita. MOA archives a033283.

The Museum of Anthropology’s past exhibition, A Future for Memory: Art and Life After the Great East Japan Earthquake, inspired us at MOA’s Audrey and Harry Hawthorn Library and Archives to revisit an old photograph collection in the Archives: the James Davidson Collection, which includes a number of glass lantern slides that show the devastation of an earlier earthquake in Japan in 1891. A Future for Memory explores ways that the experience of a disaster—and its long-lasting effects—might be documented, or otherwise remembered. The images in the James Davidson Collection are one of the more straightforward forms of such documentation: photographs taken onsite shortly after the disaster occurred. But “straightforward” does not entirely describe the process of identifying these photos when they arrived at MOA 100 years later.

Cover of ‘The Great Earthquake of Japan, 1891’, by John Milne and W.K Burton. Photo by Cody Rocko.

We now know that these earthquake images in the Davidson Collection were taken when the Nōbi or Mino–Owari earthquake happened in 1891, in the present-day Gifu Prefecture, mostly by British engineer and photographer William K. Burton, and also by Japanese photographers Kin Miyashita and Bokuyō Nakamura. However, when these slides were donated to the MOA Archives in 1990 by Marjory Abramson, all we knew was that they were once in the possession of the donor’s father, James Davidson, who had lived in Taiwan in the late 19th century. For many years, based on information received at the time of the donation, we wrongly suspected that Davidson had himself taken the photos, and we were unable to identify their exact location or date. The images clearly showed a significant event that had toppled buildings and twisted railroad lines. But without any concrete identifying information or context, the slides had essentially no research value. This is frequently the case with photos that arrive in archives. Sometimes we receive photos that are fully identified. Sometimes archivists must do their own research to identify them. And sometimes the photos remain a mystery, waiting for a time when a clue might surface— perhaps a researcher recognizes them, or we come across similar images elsewhere. In the case of the Davidson Collection, the clues trickled in over the years.

Inside ‘The Great Earthquake of Japan, 1891’. Photo by Cody Rocko.

Two decades after we received the Davidson Collection, which consists mostly of Japanese hand-coloured glass lantern slides from Japan’s Meiji period (1868–1912), interest in using the images in a MOA exhibition prompted the Archives staff to do more extensive research. They were able to locate copies of some of the images online—a method that archivists use extensively now, of course, but one that was not available when we acquired the slides in 1990. Information accompanying these online images suggested that they were of the 1891 earthquake, and that Davidson had not taken them himself. They also discovered that additional archival material from James Davidson was held at the University of Calgary.

An example of the glass lantern slides in the James Davidson Collection, depicting life in Japan during the Meiji period: Two women in a field of tall flowers, c.1895. Photographer unrecorded. MOA Archives a033319.

Discussion with the archivist in Calgary provided more context about Davidson’s life and why he may have been in possession of these slides. A few years later, MOA Curator Fuyubi Nakamura recognized the historical significance of the collection and provided additional details regarding what they showed, and who had likely taken them. Fuyubi started using the collection for instructional purposes, bringing them out of their boxes for UBC students and instructors to view and discuss. Fuyubi also identified the publication The Great Earthquake of Japan, 1891, by John Milne and W.K. Burton, in which these earthquake photos were first published, with full-page descriptions of each.

Our understanding of the collection came full circle, by chance, when a 120-year-old copy of this book was later donated to the MOA Library by the Uno Langmann family. Through these various sources, we have corrected and expanded our descriptions of these slides, ensuring that they are useful and findable by researchers. They are no longer merely interesting old glass slides of an unknown place and time, but rather valuable historical documentation of a significant disaster and its aftermath.