“Life in Camp” Display Offers Insight into Food Services in World War II Camps

Henry Sugimoto, Our Mess Hall (1942), oil on canvas. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of Madeleine Sugimoto and Naomi Tagawa.
Henry Sugimoto, Our Mess Hall (1942), oil on canvas. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of Madeleine Sugimoto and Naomi Tagawa.

 

After a bustling final weekend, Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty has come to an end. JANM is now in the process of de-installing that show in preparation for the next two exhibitions on our schedule—Sugar/Islands: Finding Okinawa in Hawai’i—The Art of Laura Kina and Emily Hanako Momohara, opening July 11, and Before They Were Heroes: Sus Ito’s World War II Images, opening July 14.

Common Ground: The Heart of Community, our core exhibition telling the Japanese American story, remains on view during this time. And if you happen to be in the museum on a Tuesday, Thursday (afternoon only), Saturday, or Sunday, you can also see a special temporary display in the Hirasaki National Resource Center. Building on the theme of “Life in Camp,” the display focuses on mess halls and food services in the concentration camps where 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II.

Specially selected items from JANM’s extensive permanent collection comprise this exhibit. Featured is an evocative 1942 painting by Henry Sugimoto titled Our Mess Hall. A multigenerational group—an elderly woman, two mothers and their children, and a young man—is seen dining at a large table. The mothers try to feed their children, one of whom refuses his food, while the young man hungrily gulps down a bowl of rice. This close-cropped scene is punctuated by two signs prominently hung on the wall behind them—one reads “No second serving!” while the other reminds them “Milk for children and sick people only.”

The painting captures the busy, crowded feel of a mess hall, while reminding viewers that strict rations were in effect. This fact is reinforced by artifacts installed in a nearby display case, which include facsimiles of actual daily menus distributed in the camps, along with memos reducing rice allocations in response to serious shortages. Also included are a bowl and utensils salvaged from various camps.

In addition to the Sugimoto painting, the exhibit features a 1944 still life by Sadayuki Uno and a photograph of Japanese American farm workers at Manzanar camp, taken by Ansel Adams in 1942. Taken together, these artworks and artifacts offer an authentic look at the distribution and consumption of food in the WWII camps.

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