Dec. 7 marks the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a milestone in American history that is being commemorated with a program of events that started on Nov. 2 and continues through Dec. 11. The “day of infamy” affected every facet of Hawai‘i life—including the Honolulu Museum of Art (then known as the Honolulu Academy of Arts). To honor the quick-acting, hardworking museum staff at that time, we republish an article by former archivist Mary Ann Akao from the Nov/Dec 2008 issue of the members’ magazine. (Pictured above: Museum director Edgar C. Schenck inspects sandbags stacked to protect windows.)
On Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, Honolulu Academy of Arts director Edgar C. Schenck and his five-year-old daughter watched black smoke billow from Pearl Harbor in the distance. According to his wife Betty Schenck, when Gov. Poindexter announced on the radio that O‘ahu was under enemy attack, her husband sped to the museum to safeguard the museum’s treasures.
As war darkened Europe and East Asia, Schenck had already prepared for just such an event. By September 1939, a preliminary “Air Raid and Bombardment Protection Plan” was drawn and lists of the most important art were compiled. The staff set aside stores of supplies and practiced fire and air drills.
The installation staffers, also concerned about the collections, raced to the museum. Following the plan, they rushed paintings, screens, wood, and lacquer objects marked with red dots to the Screen Room; pottery and stone sculpture marked with blue dots to the Ceramics Room; fabrics and furniture with green dots to the Textile Room; books and records to the book storage room; and prints to Storage #1. Secondary works replaced masterpieces in the galleries.
On Monday, staff shored windows and shelves of ceramics with sandbags and basement ceilings with six-inch pipes, and the installation of new exhibitions was completed.
When the museum opened to the public on Tuesday morning, 11 new displays were seen by 15 people. To build morale, the board of trustees kept the museum open and continued as many activities as possible, including the annual Christmas events for children.
New archivist Dawn Sueoka dove into the archive’s stacks in search of additional information on the museum during World War II. She found out that Schenck was part of a group that took preventive measures before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In addition to safeguarding the museum’s collection, Schenck also looked out for the safety of other public and private collections. He proposed and chaired a subcommittee of the City & County of Honolulu’s Major Disaster Council called the Subcommittee for the Protection of Art. It was tasked with “[making] plans for the preservation of buildings, libraries and works of art in the event of war in the Pacific.” The two other committee members were Vladimir Ossipoff, then president of the local AIA chapter, and Margaret Newman, Librarian of the Library of Hawai’i.
The buildings and collections they identified as significant were the Library of Hawai’i, the University of Hawai’i, Mrs. Alfred Castle’s Library, the Hawaiian Mission Society Library, the Bishop Museum, the Academy of Arts, the collection of J. Tyce Phillips, the collection of Mrs. Walter Dillingham, the collection of Mrs. P. E. Spalding, the collection of Mrs. Doris Duke Cromwell, Kawaiahao Church, Punahou’s Old School Hall, ‘Iolani Palace, ‘Iolani Barracks, Washington Place, and the Territorial Archives.
The committee contacted these institutions between September and November 1941 making them aware of the possibility of war, urging them to take necessary precautions, and requesting copies of any existing disaster plans. They recommended that collections evacuate only irreplaceable material, and that they regularly inspect temporary storage areas due to Hawai’i’s damp climate. (Alfred Castle wrote back, “…we have made no plans and do not intend to make any. I think the probability of either or both Mrs. Castle and I being hit by an automobile or dropping dead is more likely than the chance of the library being hit by a bomb. Therefore I think we will go on enjoying our library as long as we can.”) The committee kept in touch with these institutions after Dec. 7, and provided status updates.
Following the attack, the museum applied for and received special permission from the Office of the Military Governor to host a gathering of people on Wednesday, Dec. 24, at 3 pm “for the purpose of singing carols.” But museum staff were cautioned, “It must be understood that the greatest care must be taken at such large gatherings of people, to prevent the occurrence of such things as may easily happen in case of an attack.” In February 1943, they requested permission to hold “moonlight concerts” in the museum’s courtyard between 7:30 and 8:30 pm. “The only lights necessary will be a shaded lamp to throw light upon the music of the performers. For these concerts, there will be no more than two or three such lamps easily extinguished in the event of a raid.”
And finally, the museum served as headquarters for the Red Cross during the war.