USF's Museum Blog

Accessing Japanese American History through Collaborative Effort

Last April, an auction house in New Jersey was set to sell more than 400 items from a collection of art and artifacts related to the Japanese American incarceration camps of World War II. However Rago Arts and Auction Center decided to withdraw the items, including photographs of internees and objects that they made, after protests from descendants who were wrongfully imprisoned during the war. Many of the works were donated by Japanese American families to Allen Hendershott Eaton, an historian who wrote Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: the Arts of the Japanese in our War Relocation Camps (1952). Over the decades, the collection came into the hands of an anonymous friend of the Eaton family, who decided to auction them off.


Rosalyn Tonai (left), Executive Director of the National Japanese American Historical Society and Conny Bleul-Gohlke, ’14 (right). Photo courtesy of Conny Bleul-Gohlke.

This controversy caught the attention of Rosalyn Tonai, USF alumna and Executive Director of the National Japanese American Historical Society (NJAHS), a San Francisco-based organization that opposed the sale. NJAHS is “dedicated to the collection, preservation, authentic interpretation, and sharing of historical information of the Japanese American experience for the diverse broader national community.” According to Tonai, the vision of the organization is “to be a catalyst for cross cultural awareness and change by learning from the past and influencing the future. Camp collections from this period are now popular in the genre of ‘prison art,’ yet, they need to be preserved and interpreted within a culturally sensitive context. Their historical significance needs to be accessible to the broader public and understood in the larger political arena.” NJAHS’s permanent collection, housed in two sites in San Francisco, contains around 7,600 camp and WWII incarcerated related items and is widely known and valued by historians and researchers dedicated to the field of Japanese American history.


Painting of Heart Mountain by Heart Mountain Relocation Center, WY, internee J. Miyauchi, 1944. Collection of the NAJHS. Courtesy of the National Japanese American Historical Society.

For the past three years, USF’s Museum Studies Program has been immersed in a rich collaboration with NJAHS, along with staff from the University’s Gleeson Library/Geschke Center, on a project entitled Camp Collections: A Digital Library. This project was awarded a National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant in September 2013 to continue its efforts to improve public access to the collections by digitizing objects from NJAHS’ Camp Collections and posting them in the online database hosted by USF’s Gleeson Library. The goal of the project, according to faculty member and Project Director Paloma Añoveros, is “to make NJAHS’s objects pertaining to Japanese internment camps accessible to a broad public through research, preservation, digitization and exhibition.” The project has special historical significance in the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California, where many Japanese Americans have histories associated with the ten camps.


Max Nihei, NJAHS Collections Manager (’14, right) and students Hillary Eichinger (’15, center) and Lydia Marouf (’15, left) during a digitization session, 2015. Photo: P. Añoveros.

To date, Añoveros has worked with over 70 USF graduate students on the project in her Collections Management & Preservation course. This project has exposed students to a wide range of hands-on collections management activities such as cataloguing, written and visual documentation, provenance research, handling of objects, condition checking and reporting, storage, rehousing of objects etc. She appreciates how this multifaceted project has allowed each student to explore collections in a practical way and focus on a variety of collections topics to either expand their interests or explore new ones. Each student brings a different angle and area of expertise to the project: “research, label writing, numbering and marking, condition reporting, photography and image processing, educational programming and more — all focused on providing accessibility to the collection. By working with a particular grouping of objects that have great historical significance, we are teaching students the value of access and preservation, while spreading interest in the collection to wide audiences and cultures.” Furthermore this project has also served as a model for multidisciplinary collaboration between museum specialties, among different institutions.


Model Plane, by Tanforan Assembly Center (Tanforan Racetrack) internee Joe Kawamorita, 1941-1942. Courtesy of the National Japanese American Historical Society.

Students have researched and documented rare documents, artifacts and art objects related to the 10 historic Japanese American confinement sites located in remote areas of seven Western states as well as some of the eight Department of Justice internment camps. These include objects collected and created by Japanese Americans while in camp, as well as objects brought to and used in camp, from homemade furniture, footwear, children’s toys and games, arts and crafts, objects relating to sports, recreation, newspapers, scrapbooks, clothing and textiles. Fifty such objects from the NJAHS Collection were featured recently in Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946, a touring exhibition organized in 2010 by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with an online component that helped to increase public awareness about the camps and their preservation.

Camp Collections is part of a multi-phased collaboration between USF, NJAHS and the National Park Service (see NJAHS project site for a full historical account of each phase of the project) that has benefited from the contributions of many community members. USF is extremely grateful to Rosalyn Tonai and Paloma Añoveros for their leadership and vision in making this important project part of the curriculum of the Museum Studies program and for advancing the University’s social justice mission. Jessica Zheng Lu, Digital Collections Librarian in Gleeson Library, has played a key role by managing the database and teaching students essential protocols and nomenclature of cataloging and digitization. Lu is passionate about the power of digital technology to transform libraries and other cultural institutions and improve access to Japanese American history.

In the initial phase of the project in 2009, USF faculty member Seth Wachtel and undergraduate students in the Architecture and Community Design Program collaborated with Lu and Lynne Horiuchi of the University of California, Berkeley and others to first design and establish the digital “Confinement Sites” database on the Gleeson site. These students engaged in a unique, interdisciplinary study of the confinement sites in the areas of historic preservation, geography, architecture and urban studies.

A number of alumni of the Museum Studies Program also deserve special recognition for their efforts to advance the Camp Collections project. Max Nihei (‘14), Collections Manager at NJAHS, has been instrumental in the digitization portion of the project, locating information in institutional records, accessing storage collections and rehousing objects in addition to directly supporting the digitization process for other students in the program.


Max Nihei (’14) and Conny Bleul-Gohlke (’14), Photo courtesy of Conny Bleul-Gohlke.

Other important contributors who completed internships and/or capstone projects at NJAHS are: Conny Bleul-Gohlke (‘14), Hilary Eichinger (‘15) and Lydia Marouf (‘15). Students in Elizabeth Peña’s fall 2013 Museums and Social Justice course also contributed research on the Japanese American incarceration experience.

We are excited to announce that this collaborative access project will continue in the form of an upcoming exhibition in Thacher Gallery in the fall of 2017. The exhibit will mark the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 signed by President Roosevelt, which resulted in 120,000 Japanese Americans wrongfully imprisoned in confinement camps. According to Tonai, USF students are “making history while preserving history, by establishing a new model of collaboration between a university, a community-based organization and a government institution to educate the public about the lessons from the past and influence them on present and future decisions .”

Please join the Museum Studies Program, Gleeson Library, the Center for Asia Pacific Studies for a reception honoring NJAHS and the National Park Service and the Camp Collections project on Thursday, April 21, from 4-6pm in Thacher Gallery.

For more information on University of San Francisco’s museum studies program, click here.


Faculty member Paloma Añoveros (front left) with students (’16) in front of NJAHS, Building 640 in the Presidio, the original site of the language school for the Military Intelligence Service during World War II. Photo courtesy of P. Añoveros.


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