Ainu Collections at the University of Oregon
The University of Oregon is home to over fifty Ainu-related objects. These include twenty-one works—such as a traditional woven textile, sketches, prints, and painted scrolls—at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (JSMA), eighteen glass lantern slides at the University of Oregon Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA), and some twenty-six woven mats, inaw, necklaces, ornaments, and other craft works at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History (MNCH). The vast majority of these objects came to the University of Oregon in the late 1930s and early 1940s through JSMA founder Gertrude Bass Warner’s connections to two key individuals: Elizabeth Keith and Lucy Starr.
Elizabeth Keith (1887-1956) was a Scottish artist who lived in Tokyo between 1915 and 1924, selling her paintings and prints through the influential publishing house of Watanabe Shōzaburō (1885-1962). While living in Tokyo, Keith was introduced to Asian art collector and future JSMA founder Gertrude Bass Warner. The two cultivated a strong professional and personal friendship, exchanging many letters between the 1920s and 1940s. Around 1917/1918, Keith traveled to Hokkaido, sketching scenes of Ainu life and recording her travels in her 1928 book Eastern Windows. Keith was particularly proud of her Ainu scenes, and offered to sell her sketches and a single watercolor painting of an Ainu chieftain (featured in Eastern Windows) to Warner along with other objects she had collected while in Hokkaido. In 1937 Gertrude Bass Warner received Keith's Ainu sketches (with the exception of the watercolor which had been acquired by a private collector), along with the other Ainu craft goods. Warner gladly accepted Keith’s sketches, and referred the other objects to Dr. Luther Cressman, the director of the Oregon State Museum of Anthropology and University of Oregon Museum of Natural History (which later became the Museum of Natural and Cultural History), who eagerly accepted the works.1 Years later Keith later asked Warner if she could borrow her sketches to make prints to sell. However, because the sketches had already been accessioned into the collection, Warner was unable to return them to Keith. To this day, the sketches in the JSMA collection, along with the single watercolor portrait elsewhere, are the only known Ainu-related works Keith personally made during her time in Hokkaido.2
While Keith is responsible for many of the objects in the MNCH collection, the majority of the other Ainu-related works at the University of Oregon come from the collection of Lucy Starr. Lucy Hills Starr (1865-1943) was the sister of Frederick Starr (1858-1933), a prominent professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, who traveled to Japan in 1904 and returned with nine Ainu volunteers to participate in a living exhibit at the World’s Fair in St. Louis. Starr conducted a great deal of research on the Ainu and collected a number of paintings and glass lantern slides while in Japan. When Starr died in 1933 most of his collection—which also included a voluminous anthology of senjafuda votive prayer slips among other objects—went to his sister Lucy in Seattle, to whom he was particularly close. As Lucy’s health declined in the early 1940s she began looking to rehouse her brother’s substantial collection. Unfortunately, her extended family had little interest Starr’s objects, and given the recent start of the Pacific War, she found that the American market was uninterested in—if not outright hostile toward—Japanese art. Therefore, Lucy contacted Gertrude Bass Warner, who was well-known in the Pacific Northwest for her museum’s reputable Asian art collection. Lucy offered Warner a number of works for purchase, including the glass lantern slides, the senjafuda, paintings, and prints, and even specifically mentioned Ainu hand and hanging scrolls in a 1939 letter.3 Warner agreed purchase the glass lantern slides, which ultimately ended up at the Special Collections and University Archives, and offered to house Starr’s other objects as Lucy relocated to a care home. While there is little record of the Ainu collection after 1942, these and other objects from Starr were formally accessioned into the collection in the 1960s, and today most of the Ainu-related works at the JSMA, along with the glass lantern slides at SCUA, can be traced back to the original Starr collection.4
For more information on the Gertrude Bass Warner Papers, please visit the University of Oregon Special Collections and University Archives webpage (https://library.uoregon.edu/special-collections/). To view the complete collection of Ainu glass lantern slides, as well as many others from Frederick Starr and Gertrude Bass Warner, please visit the website for Oregon Digital (https://www.oregondigital.org/catalog). And for further information on the historical and anthropological collections at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History, please visit https://mnch.uoregon.edu/.
1.) Gertrude Bass Warner to Elizabeth Keith, December 9th, 1937, Elizabeth Keith/Jessie Keith, Gertrude Bass Warner Papers, University of Oregon Libraries Special Collections and University Archives, Box 5.
2.) Gertrude Bass Warner to Elizabeth Keith and Jessie Keith, 1927-1939, Elizabeth Keith/Jessie Keith, Gertrude Bass Warner Papers, University of Oregon Libraries Special Collections and University Archives, Box 5.
3.) Lucy Hills Starr to Gertrude Bass Warner, June 10th, 1939, Lucy Starr, Gertrude Bass Warner Papers, University of Oregon Libraries Special Collections and University Archives, Box 10.
4.) Gertrude Bass Warner to Lucy Hills Starr, 1934-1942, Lucy Starr, Gertrude Bass Warner Papers, University of Oregon Libraries Special Collections and University Archives, Box 10.