The Smithsonian Institution's critically acclaimed but controversial exhibit on sweatshops--one that other museums have declined to show--opens today at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance.
A centerpiece of the exhibit, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops 1820-Present," is a re-creation of the El Monte factory where dozens of Thai garment workers recently sewed in virtual slavery for brand-name clothing manufacturers and retailers.
On Aug. 2, 1995, authorities freed 72 workers from the San Gabriel Valley apartment complex where some had worked as long as seven years behind razor wire and locked doors.
The exhibit re-creates sections of the factory, complete with a chain-link fence, razor wire and sewing machines. It offers a glimpse into the plight of the workers, mostly young women from Thai villages who were tricked into coming to the United States by ringleaders in their native land.
Also on display are samples of clothes they sewed and such necessities as the soap and toothpaste they were forced to buy from their captives at exorbitant prices.
"Experiential learning and environmental exhibitions are very powerful," said Liebe Geft, director of the Museum of Tolerance. "Sometimes we have to look at the very stark and extreme examples to arouse us into a readiness to engage in debate."
The Smithsonian exhibit faced stiff opposition from manufacturers before it opened in Washington, D.C., in April 1998.
The Smithsonian had planned to take the show on the road, but the idea was scratched in July 1998 after museums in San Francisco, Chicago and New York turned it down.
At the time, exhibit co-curator Peter Liebhold said that various museum directors had expressed qualms about how the apparel industry and other businesses might react if their institutions hosted the show.
Now that the exhibit has shifted to Los Angeles, exhibit co-curator Harry R. Rubenstein praised the Museum of Tolerance for its decision to be its host.
"It is a matter of courage for a museum like the Museum of Tolerance to take an exhibit like this because they do rely on private and corporate sponsors," he said Friday, "and you don't know whether a show like this will hurt you."
The exhibit, which cost $100,000 to bring to Los Angeles, offers a look at the 170-year history of sweatshops in America. It begins with the seamstress period from 1820 to 1880, when impoverished women stitched bundles of precast fabric into clothes worn by Southern slaves, Western miners and New England gentlemen.
Through narrative, photographs and graphics, the show discusses the tenement sweatshops of 1880 to 1940, when immigrants ran contract shops in their small living quarters. It ends with a section on the resurgence of sweatshops, from 1940 to today, when a combination of factors at home and abroad contributed to their reappearance.
The exhibit examines the development of the clothing industry, as well as the impact of immigration, political and social reforms, and government and consumer actions on the industry.
Julie Su, attorney with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center who represented the El Monte workers in civil litigation, said her clients can hardly wait to see the exhibit.
"We are organizing a special reception for all the workers," she said.
Twenty-two Latinos also worked for the El Monte operators, but they were not held against their will. All the workers shared more than $4 million in settlements with manufacturers and retailers for back wages.
Seven Thai captors pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, indentured servitude and harboring illegal immigrants. They admitted running the garment shop from 1989 to 1995 with a captive work force. Two others remain fugitives and are believed to be in Thailand.
Rubenstein said that more than any other city, Smithsonian curators wanted to bring the exhibit to Los Angeles because of the El Monte portion.
Inasmuch as Los Angeles is both a fashion and garment capital, it is important for its residents to have an opportunity to see the exhibit and know what is really going on in the industry, Su said.
The exhibit will remain through the end of March at the museum, 9760 W. Pico Blvd.
The exhibit is on the Internet at: http://www.si.edu/nmah/ve/sweatshops