War and Art: Museums in the Context of Political Unrest

by Leah Yared ’19

When we learn about wars in history class, we learn about nations reeling from attacks on home soil. We learn the names of major battles and important generals. Art museums typically don’t enter the conversation. As we continue our research for the Mapping Philanthropy project, we have learned how wars impact the development of art museums.

Consider the Freer Gallery, a monument to Asian art in the nation’s capital. In 1941, all employees at the Freer were fingerprinted. Due to anti-Japanese discrimination during World War II, museum director John Lodge told painting conservator Kinoshita Yokichi to work from home, out of fear for his safety.

The day after Pearl Harbor, Lodge ordered the removal of all Japanese art on exhibition. The museum felt Japanese art in particular could be at risk given the general discontent and suspicion the Japanese were faced with in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Centuries-old pieces were carefully moved to what would be called “War Storage” in the museum’s basement. Americans fearfully anticipated another attack, and D.C. seemed like a prime target. Lodge made plans for a bombproof storage vault underground to protect the priceless works.

Museum staffers went from planning exhibitions to wondering if the structure could sustain a direct blast. When Lodge’s successor assumed the directorship in 1943, his main job was to protect the gallery from damage in the event of public demonstrations against Japan. Fortunately, the threat of bombing subsided and the Japanese works were brought out of storage in 1944.

The Freer was not the only D.C. museum forced to make difficult decisions during the war. In 1942, the Folger Shakespeare Library secretly shipped 30,000 rare objects by train to Amherst College, to be kept safely in underground storage.

But the uncertainty that political unrest creates is not unique to World War II. William Wilson Corcoran, who created the now-closed Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1869, supported the Confederacy during the Civil War, like many other Washingtonians. He mixed art and diplomacy by hosting annual balls for Congress, which likely played a small role in bringing together a divided capital. His gallery “became the cultural center of Washington; a social gathering spot for its white elite and government workers and a popular destination for tourists and official visitors from around the world.”[1]

Tensions abroad also affected American collectors. The 1912 fall of the Qing dynasty in China forced Charles Lang Freer to give up any plans for another collecting trip. Still, the political turmoil played to his advantage; it “animated the Chinese antiques market”[2] and brought never-before-seen works out of the imperial collection and into the hands of opportunistic dealers.

Pagoda Paris Blog Pic.jpg

Pagoda Paris, C.T. Loo’s art dealership in Paris

One of those opportunistic dealers, C. T. Loo, is proof that dealers and collectors are agents of historical change just as much as they are acted upon by events out of their control. Loo, a Chinese art dealer, is considered a villain in China for disseminating many of his country’s treasures to Western museums and collections. Of course, he was able to obtain works of art due to the fall of the Qing dynasty and the Communist consolidation of power decades later, as both events caused many Chinese elites to sell off their collections.

But he himself changed the landscape of Chinese art collecting by buying up antique treasures and selling them at his Paris shop. His decisions impacted the acquisitions collectors were able to make. Two of Loo’s clients, Freer and Arthur M. Sackler, opened museums dedicated to Asian art in Washington, D.C.

In the ever-expanding world of art collecting, far-off conflicts can impact collectors a continent away. And that impact intensifies if the conflict is at home—personal safety comes into question, and museum staffing decisions can change. For this reason, it is crucial to understand global conditions when investigating cultural institutions.


[1] Tank, 45.

[2] Larsen, 30

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