Following more than two decades of planning and work, the Topaz Museum in Delta, Utah is hoping to open its permanent exhibit sometime in 2016. Despite initial issues regarding the exhibit’s content first proposed more than a year ago, the newly revised proposed exhibits met mostly positive reactions at a Dec. 13 open house presentation at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in San Francisco’s Japantown.
The proposed museum and exhibit has been the dream of Jane Beckwith, a former teacher in Delta, who started the project by assigning her high school journalism students in 1982 to interview local residents about the former concentration camp that was nearby during World War II.
Members of the public were invited to the open house meeting to comment on the museum’s exhibit text, which was written by Sarah Bartlett of Split Rock Studios, the writer for the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center exhibits in Powell, Wyo., under the direction of the Topaz Museum Board and the advice of its Historian Scholarly Advisory Group.
“It’s very hard to overstate the importance of bringing attention to what happened during the period of Japanese American confinement during the Second World War,” said Rick Frost, associate regional director of communications at the National Park Service for the Intermountain Region. Frost stated that it was important for the museum to ensure that people do not forget the mistakes of the past. “I think it’s not too political to say that right now we live in a period of fear. You can see that … ethical needle tipping back toward pointing fingers toward groups of people. That is so dangerous and so antithetical to democratic principles and personal liberties and personal freedoms.”
“I can’t tell you … how miraculous it was that my students started in 1982 a project they never gave up on until they graduated. That just doesn’t happen in high school classrooms very much,” Beckwith said.
Beckwith said her students grasped the gravity of the story behind the camp. She told the Nichi Bei Weekly that her students’ interviews seemed to break the silence many townspeople had on what happened during the war. “It’s as if the town had been given permission to talk about Topaz,” she said.
In conjunction with the interviews, locals started giving Beckwith various artifacts from the camp. “I soon had a trunkful of artifacts. That’s when I realized this was a huge story that deserved a museum.
Having worked on the project for decades, Beckwith is anxious to open the museum. She said this is the third draft of the exhibit’s text. When asked when she expects the museum to open, she said, “25 years ago, when it should have been opened.”
While Beckwith had wanted to open the museum sooner, some members of the San Francisco Bay Area’s Japanese American community, where many of Topaz’s former inmates originated, had raised concerns with the content of the museum’s exhibits. Filmmaker Emiko Omori, former chair of the Topaz Exhibits Committee, said some Japanese Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area did not agree with the tone and content of the exhibit’s initial draft. Omori, who was incarcerated at Poston, Ariz., said she took charge of the committee to put together the community’s criticism of the draft text to send to the NPS. Omori said the nine-person committee, which later grew to 18, was never in full agreement over the exhibit’s content.
Omori’s own criticisms were that the exhibit’s first draft did not emphasize the constitutional injustice inmates faced. “What was emphasized, the tone, gave viewers the wrong impression that ‘it wasn’t so bad,’” she said.
During the meeting, several complaints received were listed on the wall, citing a need for clearer answers for rhetorical questions posed by the exhibit and that Wartime Relocation Authority photographs “should be called propaganda photos — don’t dance around this.”
However, Gary Hoshiyama, whose parents met in Topaz, contended that statements by the former inmates, the U.S. government and the wartime press should not be altered or suppressed. “I’m perfectly fine with a reflection … explaining how today’s people feel,” he said. “But to put words into the mouths of my parents and uncles — my mother never called it a prison or said she was incarcerated, it was just ‘camp.’” Hoshiyama said he was generally “both pleased and impressed” with the first draft.
He said “stakeholders,” former inmates and their descendants, such as himself who were not at Topaz, do not have the standing to impose changes to the museum without having been directly involved with planning for the museum. He said he had no right to impose his opinions, save for providing supplemental information on his own family’s wartime experience.
Hoshiyama also took issue with going through the NPS to criticize the exhibit, which he said jeopardized a grant to the museum. “To gain leverage that way, with the possible risk of the funding being cancelled altogether? It would have been devastating,” he said. “Don’t go behind the scenes to try to get your way. The right thing to do is to meet it face on.”
Kara Miyagishima, program manager of the NPS’ Japanese American Confinement Sites Program, said the Topaz Museum received a grant from the confinement sites program in 2014 to create the exhibits. Miyagishima said the NPS oversees the programs it funds and elected to facilitate a meeting in June of 2014 with various stakeholders and the Topaz Museum Board after receiving comments both supportive and critical of the initial draft. While funding could have been withheld, Miyagishima said the stakeholders and museum board agreed to work together to find a resolution to address the comments from former inmates and their descendants.
The stakeholders and museum board created a process, which included the creation of the advisory group, headed by Franklin Odo, and a public commenting process. The advisory group — comprised of Odo, a John Jay McCloy visiting professor of American institutions and institutional diplomacy at Amherst College; Cherstin Lyon, associate professor of history at California State University, San Bernardino; Greg Robinson, professor of history at Université du Québec À Montréal and Nancy K. Araki, founding volunteer and first staff member of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles —evaluated the proposed exhibit.
“I think the folks who had the most acute criticisms, did a lot of work with very detailed criticisms. They did a tremendous amount of editing and research, and for that we thank them,” Odo, founding director of the Smithosonian Asian Pacific American Program, said.
Odo said the advisory group accepted comments from the public and made suggestions to Beckwith and her board. “I was on the phone with Jane and she can tell you, we had many conversations, not all of them friendly,” he said. “And she was enormously welcoming, and the museum board listened carefully. As far we’re concerned, the rewrite, which you see before you, is a substantial improvement over the first version and I think will stand.”
Odo told the Nichi Bei Weekly that the first script people saw was “very preliminary,” and that the version presented to public now has been fleshed out with more information and more complexity. “The initial outline laid out, at least to some people, a much too happy an experience,” he said. “A lot of research was done to help show the board where to go, and to their credit, they listened.”
Odo noted how important Araki was to the advisory group. Araki provided insight into how the public learns about history compared to historians. “Most scholars aren’t very attuned to public history. That’s what this is,” Odo said. “People learn their history through things like museums, Websites and documentaries, and not through scholarly works. Nancy understood this being a part of JANM for so long.”
The revised exhibit, according to Odo, is more nuanced and also takes into account principles of exhibit design. “Labels need to be brief and make visitors want to go home and find out more for themselves,” he said. He also countered that calling Wartime Relocation Authority photographs outright “propaganda” as suggested would be “off putting for some visitors.”
Araki pointed out that most of the visitors to this museum will be school children in Utah and that cultural context matters. “There’s hope to have Japanese Americans visit, but the town folk (of Delta) need to buy into it too,” she said.
The document containing the revised exhibit text acknowledged that the museum’s audience will “be predominantly people with a casual knowledge of Topaz and Japanese American confinement. Many of the visitors will be students … and tourists.” The document goes on to say the exhibits must engage audiences “intellectually and emotionally,” but be presented in a way “that does not overwhelm them or lecture at them.” The document also states the importance for the story to be told “in an honest, respectful way,” for former detainees and their families.
“The arduous process was worth it. All the people did a commendable job,” Omori said. The new version, including more personal anecdotes and emphasis on the so-called loyalty questionnaire addresses some aspects of her concerns, but not all. In a Dec. 14 e-mail, Omori announced she was stepping down from chairing the committee, saying “I don’t know about the committee itself. I feel that its role is no longer necessary.”
Hoshiyama, likewise said the text presented Dec. 13 was a “good compromise,” and added that it was better than the initial draft. “I’ve always believed everybody wanted a museum, but what it needed to say differed,” he said. Though, he added, the end did not necessarily justify the means.
Sheridan Tatsuno acknowledged the difficulty of telling the true emotions and stories behind the wartime incarceration through photos. “One challenge is that everyone has a happy look because they’re trying to do the best they can. Their anger and sadness is never shown,” he said. Tatsuno said his late father, Dave Tatsuno, had smuggled a color home movie camera into Topaz and recorded some footage while incarcerated. The film is one of two home movies on the National Film Registry, the other being the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination.
He said his father’s home movies similarly depict people at Topaz smiling. He added the Issei, who were the worst affected by wartime incarceration are now all gone without having expressed their true thoughts and feelings over wartime incarceration. “(The memories) were too negative. People didn’t want to talk about it.” Tatsuno also said the museum’s exhibit looked good, though he said the introduction and background portion of the exhibit was “a little too long.”
Wade Finlinson, a native of Delta, said he took Beckwith’s class as a high school student in the 1980s. “It took some time to take it all in, even a few years after graduation,” he said. Finlinson, born and raised in Delta, started to grasp the effect of wartime incarceration on Japanese Americans when his senior class took a trip to San Francisco. “I realized we were coming here for leisure when people who lived here were forced to leave and go to the Utah desert.”
Now a resident of Oakland, Calif., Finlinson said he recognized the museum’s importance. “There’s so many documentaries and books about the wartime experience out there, but they haven’t reached the people of Delta,” he said. He hopes the exhibit will help educate people from his hometown to be more aware of its wartime history.
Comments collected during the comment period will be compiled by NPS staff and then shared with the advisory group who will then make recommendations to the Topaz Museum Board, according to Frost. The exhibit text is available online at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/topazexhibits. Comments will be accepted through Monday, Dec. 28 and can be submitted electronically on the Website or mailed to: National Park Service, Attn: Kara Miyagishima, 12795 W. Alameda Parkway, Lakewood, CO 80228.