Safekeeping ‘treasures’ and their stories for future generations


These bird pins, crafted from wood at a wartime incarceration camp, were among the items displayed during the March 5 “Treasures Revealed” workshop held at the JACL national headquarters in San Francisco’s Japantown. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly


“You can’t take it with you but you can leave it behind with meaning and purpose,” Rosalyn Tonai told a room of more than a dozen people gathered for the “Treasures Revealed” workshop on preserving artifacts from previous generations for the future. The event, held at the Japanese American Citizens League’s (JACL) national headquarters in San Francisco’s Japantown, aimed to help people preserve objects from wartime concentration camps, and stressed the preservation of objects over their restoration.

The workshop, held on March 5 with two more planned in the future, was made possible by a grant from the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program.

The event started with an introduction from Greg Marutani of the San Francisco chapter of the JACL.

“There’s two things we want to do today,” he said. “One is preserving things … The other is going out to get the stories behind these items.”

He demonstrated his point by holding up an old jar of sea shells. “What’s this?” he asked. “These are shells, but from where? They could be from Pismo Beach, or they could be from Topaz [concentration camp].” He stressed that knowing the difference could change whether future generations would choose to preserve or throw away the otherwise innocuous objects.

TREASURES — (Above:) Objects that belonged to former Nikkei camp prisoners. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

The task of finding these objects do prove to be daunting for some. Marutani recalled going through a mountain of documents that a friend had inherited following a relative’s passing. He found two letters written by civil rights attorney Wayne Collins that would have gone to the garbage, had he not been asked to look through them. Such findings, however, are rare and many are missed before their full value is realized.

Yo Hironaka, a board member of the San Francisco chapter of the JACL, and former Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp inmate, agreed with the need to preserve such items, not just for future generations, but also for people such as herself. “I didn’t really think of preservation,” she said. “When I had to move out during redevelopment, I went and bought new things.”

Tonai, the executive director of the National Japanese American Historical Society, who led most of the presentation, stressed that the value of these objects could only be realized through their discovery and documentation. By finding the story behind items and itemizing what needs to be preserved, future generations can then take steps to continue their preservation.

The workshop provided a packet of sample materials and a workbook to help attendees with their future preservation efforts. Tonai stressed some basic steps in preservation. The first was to assess the materials used to make the object in question. Depending on whether an item is made of wood, metal, cloth, paper or leather, their preservation methods can vary.

Perhaps the most important issue, however, was exposure to the elements. The presentation stressed that sunlight, moisture, heat and oils from the hand can degrade photographs, rot old clothing, and wear out furniture. Heirlooms can be saved for the future when wrapped in acid-free tissue and stored in polyethylene plastic bags.

Attendees also received a polyethylene bag with some acid free tissues, mylar photo/negative sleeves and acid-free photo corners. The key to preservation: acid-free.

“Just because something says it’s ‘archival’ doesn’t mean it’s acid-free,” said Tonai.

On storing objects, Tonai expressed the reality behind museums and their limited ability to hold onto objects. The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles no longer accepts donations for exhibition items because they lack the space, she said. Likewise, other local museums might not have the ability to take in such works. While the JACL accepts some donations or artifacts, the process is long and involves a number of reviews to assess the value of whether the item should be accepted or not.

Thus, Tonai suggests keeping heirlooms and treasures in their owners’ home. “The new trend is ‘keep it in the family,’” she said.

Other options include digitizing photos and pictures while they are in good condition.

Delphine Hirasuna, who curated the “Art of Gaman” exhibit at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. — and authored a book by the same title — presented a lecture on the importance of preserving the stories behind camp artifacts before they are lost forever.

“I’ve heard of so many things being thrown away because people simply didn’t know,” said Hirasuna. “I heard there was a butsudan (altar) made of cigar boxes … it got thrown out.”

Hirasuna professed that many people she met while looking for items to display in “Art of Gaman” didn’t realize what they had was of any worth.

Hirasuna says that 13 more museums have since approached her with interest in taking the exhibit on tour. The sudden interest in exhibitions and increase in the perceived value of the artifacts have caused a new series of problems.

Sometimes, well-meaning families try to “spruce up” well-preserved objects by polishing them, but often end up damaging the items and shortening their life span.

Another issue that arose was an inflated sense of value for camp objects.

“When I started on the book, I can’t tell you how many people told me ‘if you don’t like it throw it away,” Hirasuna said. “Now people think they got the Mona Lisa.”

Hirasuna professed that, at best, these treasures have a monetary value of $1,000. The value of these objects is largely historical and sentimental.

The event concluded with an introduction to some of the detective work that might be required for finding the story behind the objects. The workbook provided included a glossary for all the camps and prisons — the list is joined by a list of natural materials found around various camp environments.

While it may be impossible to discern who created a lamp stand made from a twisted piece of wild juniper, it would be possible to guess that the object came from Heart Mountain, Wyo. where the wood was most likely to be found.

Perhaps the most exciting item presented at the workshop was a tattered scrapbook that Vera Lee Hamano brought. The scrapbook contained many letters and memorabilia from Heart Mountain, and had belonged to Hamano’s mother-in-law. One of the items included was a bracelet made out of bone.

“I didn’t realize this was worth anything, all it had was a few letters and stuff like those food stamps,” she said.

Hirasuna said the contents seemed well preserved. “I can see the book itself is tattered and falling apart, but the photos are preserved right and a lot of the stuff inside looks like it’s held up well.”

Treasures such as Hamano’s could be lurking in anyone’s homes, though their worth often is only realized after the story behind them is revealed.


There will be two more workshops. Sunday, March 27 from 1 to 3 p.m., a workshop will take place at the San Mateo County Historical Association, Courtroom A, at 2200 Broadway in Redwood City, Calif. For more information, contact Misa Sakaguchi at (650) 299-0104 ext. 227. There is a $5 entrance fee to the Association.

On Saturday, April 30, the Watsonville-Santa Cruz chapter of the JACL will host a workshop from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. at the JACL Hall located at 150 Blackburn St. in Watsonville, Calif. For more information, contact David Kadotani at (831) 728-4212.Nichi Bei Weekly


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