The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Finding Something Cool Without Even Trying
As a reference archivist, most of my time is spent looking for things other people request, but sometimes I end up finding stuff that is so cool I just can't keep it to myself. Oddly, that's what happened when I received a seemingly dry request for a letter written in 1944 from Oscar L. Chapman, Assistant Secretary of the Interior to E. P. Henderson, Associate Curator in Minerology and Petrology concerning legal status of meteorites that fall on public lands. It wasn't easy, but I found the letter in an accession file (Record Unit 305, Accession Records of the US National Museum, circa 1850-1958, accession # 168531) and then it got interesting.
Many times accession files are fairly brief—a one-page accession memorandum describing the object(s); the donor(s); how and when it was acquired (gift, exchange, purchase, etc.); where it came from; and a little correspondence between the museum and the donor—but this one was especially lengthy and, right off the bat, piqued my interest.
In 1944, a 1,164 pound meteorite was purchased for $700 using Roebling funds (a Smithsonian endowment for the purchase of mineral specimens) from Yoshio Nishimoto and Akio Ujihara and it was collected from the Drum Mountains, Millard County, Utah. The time period, locality, and ethnicity of the discoverers made me wonder: were these men Japanese internees? The file not only confirmed my suspicions, it also provided an intimate portrait of Mr. Nishimoto and Ujihara's story, and the relationships they developed with government and museum staff who helped them during this time.
Akio Ujihara, aged 44 (34-12-F) and Yoshio Nishimoto, aged 41 (34-7-D) were interred at the War Relocation Authority, Central Utah Project at Topaz, Utah. As members of the Topaz Lapidary School, they were on an expedition sixteen miles outside the compound to locate chalcedony (a semi-precious stone) to bring back to the school when they came upon something strange. In his four-page handwritten account of the discovery, Ujihara also detailed his background and how he happened to be at Topaz (he'd first been at Manzanar, another internment camp) and how he and Nishimoto were involved with lapidary work. There are also letters from Mr. Nishimoto, but they are not as personally revealing.
Interestingly, the correspondence between the Mr. Henderson at the Smithsonian and Mr. L. T. Hoffman (Topaz Project Director) and G. V. Morris (Evacuee Property Officer) is interesting. It is very clear that everyone on the other side of the equation is very interested in rewarding Mr. Ujihara and Nishimoto for their discovery. Mr. Morris explains, in a letter to Henderson on October 10, 1944:
"you must understand that these gentlemen are both under that peculiar situation under the War Relocation Authority supervision, where their income is practically non-existant (sic), so that the financial proceeds from this discovery is of considerable importance to both of them. They would, therefore, appreciate your best endeavors along that line."
Henderson's reply details his desire to wait on the full analysis in order determine if there is anything very unusual about the specimen that would allow him, "to up our reward to include this angle." And he goes on to say that, "I hope there are no legal complications why these men cannot accept the reward, and I shall not attempt any inquiry to find out about this point . . . I hope these men have the opportunity to visit our museum and see the collection. I would like to meet them." I like the way that Henderson frankly states that he'll, "make no inquires." I guess he figured it would be easier to ask forgiveness than ask permission to do what he knew was right and fair.
What impressed me the most about this story was that Morris and Henderson were particularly sensitive to Ujihara and Nishimoto's plight, and wanted to do as much as they could to help them. In the end, everyone worked together to transfer the specimen to the museum and get the men payment. And today, you can actually see the meteorite, which is currently on display at the National Museum of Natural History.
Although this sounds like a unique story, it's not. There are other stories of museum officials intervening on behalf of another Japanese employee at the Freer Gallery of Art. But that's another blog post.
P.S. In conducting my research into the collectors, I found that Akio Ujihara's watercolors of Topaz were featured in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History exhibit, To Form a More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the US Constitution.
- Record Unit 192 - United States National Museum, Permanent Administrative Files, 1877-1975, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- To Form a More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the US Constitution, National Museum of American History
- Meteor Found in Utah - The Deseret News, December 20, 1944