Contributing—or not—to the collections

“Do you have Rebecca’s arrival hanbok?” Noriko Sanefuji stood in my office doorway and smiled. Do I remember what my daughter was wearing when she arrived? Doesn’t every mother?

Our daughter came on a huge 747 to O’Hare International Airport on a hot May afternoon, one of perhaps a dozen babies being escorted to the United States to their adoptive parents. Volunteers carried each baby, cleaned up after the 30-hour trip and dressed in new outfits, into the arms of their new moms and dads. Armed only with tiny photos and huge, aching hearts, we knew which one was ours, even before our names were called. Of course I remember!

Hanbok Korean dress, 1955. Gift of Betty Holt Blankenship.

But Noriko, who works in the museum’s Division of Work and Industry, was seeking a particular article of clothing. On display now in the museum’s case, “Barriers to Bridges: Asian American Immigration,” is a diminutive hanbok (ceremonial dress) from one of the first Holt adoptees, Betty Rhee, who arrived in 1955. Our conservators were trying to determine if the dress is too fragile to stay on display for an extended time, and Noriko was seeking another one to possibly take its place. Sometimes we have similar artifacts readily available in our storage cabinets. However, the Asian-Pacific American collection is fairly new and doesn’t have the depth of, say, our collections of political buttons or military uniforms or photographs. But I had to tell Noriko that in the 20+ years between Betty Rhee and Rebecca, the arrival outfits had become more practical—our daughter arrived wearing a soft blue, two-piece outfit, machine-embroidered with pastel flowers.

Thankfully, another gracious donor has expressed willingness to donate a hanbok similar to the original. So the bigger question—could my husband and I have let our daughter’s arrival outfit go—remains unanswered. I’m the one who has held onto (not that many! but some!) clothing and toys and books and papers that signify the unfolding exhibition of our children’s lives. Hey, I work for a history museum! And I’m not ready yet. But the process gave me a bit more insight—and deeper appreciation—for the generous people who have told the stories and contributed the objects that we have in our collections. And we all are a little richer.

Susan Walther is a programs coordinator at the National Museum of American History.