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O b j e c t   L e s s o n s

The Rias Ark Museum of Art (リアスアーク美術館,  Riasu Āku Bijutsukan) is a contemporary art and local history museum in the hills of Kesennuma. The name of the museum is fitting for this part of Japan and the tumultuous history of its landscape. “Rias” is a geological term that describes a “a drowned river valley that remains open to the sea.” ^ Characteristic of the Sanriku coast, rias formations are the result of earthquakes that sink coastal mountains. Meanwhile, sea level rise—much since the end of the last ice age, and more to come with anthropogenic global warming—adds to the rias topology of the coast.


The museum's moniker of “ark,” in reference to Noah’s Ark, presciently predated the March 2011 tsunami. A repository in the face of calamity, this museum-as-ark contains not only art, but now also a permanent exhibition on its lower floor called Documentary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and History of the Tsunami, which opened in April 2013.


The Rias Ark Museum of Art. Two boatlike structures stand perched above its roof.

The exhibition is an unapologetically intense experience. With curation led by Hiroyasu Yamauchi, it is a remarkable collection of images, materials, and reflections collected over two years following the tsunami. Some of the one hundred and fifty-five domestic objects are on display include a child’s stuffed animal, a destroyed refrigerator, a camera, a keychain, a sugar bowl, and a vinyl record—all items recovered from the debris field left after the tsunami waves receded. The objects are at once generic—anyone could have owned such items—and specific to the events that orphaned them, scattered them, and forced anonymity upon them. In fact, the curators coin a new term for these objects, referring to them as hasaibutsu:


“Those who are affected by a disaster are called hisaisha, ‘disaster-stricken people,’ victims of the disaster.

Why then don’t we use the word hisaibutsu ‘disaster-stricken objects,’ debris, when we refer to the remnants

of assets that suffered damage from a disaster? Do not call them ‘rubble’; call them debris,

‘disaster-stricken objects.’ ” ^ 


The exhibition takes a curatorial stance grounded in material intimacy and evocation that pushes beyond traditional documentary approaches. “We gathered messages from the stuff and made them into short stories of attachment each owner might have had to them,”  explains the exhibition's preface. These accompanying parafictional reminiscences aim to evoke “subjective facts”—latent memories and unexpressed stories in those who experienced the tsunami. At the same time, the short narrations also give outside visitors a means to engage the items truly as hisaibutsu that were entangled within the lives of others, rather than simply authenticated rubble.


At the time of my visit, a sign asked visitors to refrain from taking photographs of the objects in the museum. The images here come from the museum's own website.

Hisaibutsu in the Rias Ark Museum of Art. Kindred to objects in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, these artifacts are described in local dialect to give visitors access to an event that is otherwise difficult to imagine, and offering perceptibility through the objects' (past and) presence.

The exhibition presents an aesthetics of loss, but it is not for solely for the sake of sentimentality or memorialization, it also serves an evolving continuity. The museum-as-ark carries things from a world pre-inundation to a different one after the flood: a world that will be more than just recreated but alsothe museum seems to hope—fundamentally rethought.


This opportunity for rethinking is evident in another feature of the exhibition: its list of “Keywords to Think about East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami” (a number of which appear throughout this project). Accompanying various images and objects throughout the exhibition, the keywords seek to redefine the most basic relational terms of human culture and nonhuman nature. The keywords include:

                          #45: Extraordinary

                       #46: The ordinary

                     #47: Culture

                   #51: Landscape

                 #65: Natural phenomena

               #75: Past, present, and future

             #77: Sludge

           #78: Relocation of the Community  to Higher Ground

         #79: The Sea

       #80: Reinforced Concrete

     #107: Rapid Economic Growth

                       #18: Individual and Society

                    #20: Steel framed structure

                  #21: Fire

                #23: Flashback

              #24: Offensive odor

            #26: Universality

          #27: Anxiety

        #29: Visualization

      #30: Trauma

    #31: Rubble

  #33: Home

#34: Memories of the past

These keywords call out the semantic and conceptual foundations of modern culture’s disaster thinking, in the physical nitty-gritty and the metaphysical-categorical alike. The museum recognizes that the effects of a tsunami are not simply “natural” but that it is in large part also a “human-generated disaster,” whose, “disaster scale depends on cultural factors in the community.” The exhibition does what an art museum should in asking visitors to reconsider foundations of their perceptions, in this case regarding risk, causation, and naturalcultural relations. Rather than blithely accepting solutions cast in  endless concrete, the exhibition and its keywords ask for a rethinking of the problem itself. 


The aesthetics of remnants.


Around Kesennuma, the traumatic physical traces of March 11, 2011 persist outside the boundaries of the museum as well. With no obvious designations, why do these particular objects remain when almost every other remnant has been so thoroughly removed?

Even the most likely proponents of landscape intervention, disaster engineers, understand that not every force can be buffered nor can every landscape and uncertainty be domesticated by geo-gardening. In a 2015 study, Alison Raby and colleagues note that preparation for so-called Level 2 events—those occurring hundreds to thousands of years apart, such as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami—demand a different logic than smaller Level 1 events occurring fifty to one hundred-and-fifty years apart, such as the tsunamis of 1896 and 1960. “Level 2 events,” they write, “principally require non-structural measures to ensure life-safety, e.g. warnings and evacuation procedures that were found to be effective in the 2011 event.”  Non-structural measures, the authors note, are those ways in which “we must change ourselves”—our perceptions, attitudes, and decisions in relation untamable forces and planet-sized facts.


No measure of concrete can build humans completely out of harm’s way. In some cases, the attempts may actually build us further into danger. If we aspire to be geological coinhabitants of the Earth in the long term and sustain ourselves through the vagaries of deep time, it will require a change in perception of intended and unintended consequences alike.

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