In 1941, our Japanese collection was rushed into storage and a Japanese employee was ushered into exile. Today, our art is an antidote to xenophobia.

In mid-March, along with the rest of the Smithsonian, the National Museum of Asian Art temporarily closed its doors. The COVID-19 crisis calls to mind another memorable time in the museum’s history, when our impulse was to retreat rather than engage. On Dec. 8, 1941 — the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor — then-Director John Ellerton Lodge made two remarkable decisions.

The first was in the galleries. Concerned that the East Coast was the next target for bombing, Lodge ordered the removal of all the Japanese works on display, along with fragile non-Japanese art. For the next five years, the pieces were secured in 32-gallon barrels of galvanized metal. It wasn’t just fear of bombing that informed Lodge’s thinking. Because he was also reacting to widespread anti-Japanese sentiment, he didn’t return the Japanese art to the galleries until six months after the war ended, well after non-Japanese material had been put back on display.

Concern for xenophobia also explains Lodge’s second decision: directing conservator Kinoshita Yokichi, an expert in Japanese painting and the museum’s first Asian employee, to “shelter at home.” Because it wasn’t safe for a Japanese national to make his way in public, even to a quiet conservation studio in a then-sleepy museum, Yokichi stayed away from the museum for the duration of the war. It was only in January of 1946 that he went to the United States Marshal’s Office to retrieve personal items that had been confiscated: a radio, opera glasses, binoculars and three small Japanese flags.

Asian art and culture are global

Nearly 80 years later, another crisis linked to Asia has stoked fears. This time, rather than taking our objects out of public view, we’re making our collection of 45,000 digital works available remotely to global audiences sheltering in their homes. The online collection; virtual exhibitions, tours and programs; lesson plans; and podcasts inform, entertain and intrigue people forced into physical isolation. We have come a long way since the museum’s Japanese collection was rushed into storage and Kinoshita Yokichi was ushered into exile. 

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It’s not simply that technology has changed, enabling this kind of virtual contact. The world has changed. In ways unimaginable to Lodge, Asian art and culture are now global. Manga and Anime are mainstream, and K-pop kings BTS are a household name. Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic print, “Great Wave Off Kanagawa,” with its huge frothy wave cresting over Mount Fuji, has been reproduced on t-shirts, outdoor murals and even as a Cookie Monster mashup. The best-selling work of poetry in the United States in recent years was by a 13th-century Persian mystic named Rumi. 

We all look forward to the day when we can leave our homes, when museums re-open and visitors can meander through galleries. Museum walls aren’t dissolving; there will always be a role for the physical encounter, particularly as so much of our experience grows ever more mediated by technology. At our museum, visitors will once again have the pleasure of witnessing, in person, the creative genius of Asian art. 

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In the meantime, we respond to the crisis, our efforts driven by the proposition that as much as Asia is no longer bounded by geography, museums are no longer bounded by walls. In a country where retailers promote American celebrity-branded yoga mats and gear, we have transformed a weekly “Meditation and Mindfulness” session attended by visitors in Washington, D.C., into an online experience available the world over. (We’re clearly meeting a need: four times a week, hundreds of participants, including a hospital worker on her break, find respite and quiet.)

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And in a country where fear and anxiety can give rise to xenophobia, we invite visitors to scroll through a catalog of Chinese jade, view paintings by Hokusai or travel to a Tibetan Buddhist shrine. The empathy and respect that follow on the heels of understanding are powerful antidotes.

Chase F. Robinson is the Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, and a scholar of Islamic history and culture.


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