The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia is currently featuring the drawing All In One Room by Estelle Ishigo in their permanent exhibition The Story of We, the People. The drawing will be on display through November of 2014.
Estelle Peck Ishigo (1899-1990) is most well known as an artist who chronicled the experience at the Heart Mountain concentration camp.
Estelle Peck was born in Oakland in 1899 to parents of English, Dutch, French ancestry. Her family moved to Los Angeles and Estelle attended the Otis Art Institute, where she met Arthur Ishigo (1902-1957), a San Francisco-born Nisei who was working as a chauffeur for California Lieutenant Governor Robert Kenny. As anti-miscegenation laws at the time prohibited interracial couples from getting married, Peck and Ishigo took a trip across the border to Tijuana to be wed in 1928. Hoping for a career as an actor, Arthur worked as a janitor at Paramount Studios while Estelle worked as an art teacher. Shunned by her family, the couple lived among the Japanese American community.
With the outbreak of World War II and the removal of all West Coast Japanese Americans to inland concentration camps, the couple faced a dilemma. As a Nisei, Arthur was required to be removed while his wife was not. Though he wanted her to stay behind, she accompanied her husband, first to the Pomona Assembly Center in California, and then to Heart Mountain, Wyoming.
Throughout the war years, Estelle drew, sketched, and painted what she saw, providing a valuable document of life in the American concentration camps. “Strange as it may sound, in this desolate, lonely place I felt accepted for the first time in my life,” she later wrote of her time at Heart Mountain. She and her husband remained at Heart Mountain in order to record the last days of the camp until it was officially closed. The Ishigos were given $25 and put on a train to the West Coast. “I felt as if I were part of a defeated Indian tribe,” she remembered later.
In 1990, filmmaker Steven Okazaki made a documentary of Estelle Ishigo’s life titled Days of Waiting. Estelle passed away before seeing the film, which went on to win an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.
Estelle Ishigo’s story and drawings comprise an important aspect of the permanent collection at the National Museum. The Estelle Ishigo Collection can be seen on the Museum’s website at: janm.org/collections/estelle-ishigo-collection
What happens when a Museum changes exhibitions? Why is the area cordoned off so we can’t see what is going on inside? Common questions posed by National Museum visitors when they meet the Collections Management team and realize we are part of the select group that is behind the blacked out door during exhibition changes.
Here are a few images to help you glimpse behind the door!
(click to see the full images)
Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986
October 12, 2013 – February 9, 2014
Through a selection of images from comic books representing four turbulent decades, Marvels & Monsters illustrates how evolving racial and cultural archetypes defined America’s perceptions of Asians. For more information >>
Every summer the Getty Foundation organizes a Multicultural Undergraduate Internship program in Los Angeles that aims to encourage greater diversity in the professions related to museums and the visual arts. This year JANM hired three interns—Kelly in Media Arts, Cindi in Production, and myself, Esther, in the Curatorial department.
For the majority of the summer we worked separately, but for the last few weeks, we worked together to produce a final collaboration project which would culminate in a promotional video for the exhibition, I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story.
As the exhibition takes a sweeping look at how Asian Pacific Americans have shaped and been shaped by the course of U.S. history, we decided to interview Asian Pacific Americans of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and occupations on a variety of topics. Our central question was “What do you want from your America?”. We also asked each interviewee to finish the sentence “I am…”. We got a wide array of answers that allows any viewer to appreciate the cultural, historical, and social diversity among Asian Pacific Americans.
For footage we used photographs from the exhibition itself, and made stops around Downtown Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo and Chinatown. We also visited our own Collections Department at JANM to photograph artifacts and photographs that were relevant to the exhibition. It was an exciting day because we saw how expansive our Collections Department is, and we got to personally handle artifacts!
We were also granted permission from Youtube stars including, fitness instructor Cassey Ho from Blogilates, singers David Choi and Clara C, and Wong Fu Productions for our preview clip. Although we did not use all of these clips for our final video, we were able to get exciting experience communicating with professionals, and were able compile more than enough footage so that we had many options while editing our video.
Check out our final video to see who’s footage and interviews made it into our collaboration project!
It was a time-consuming project, but it was also a great experience because we were able to collaborate with each other, appreciate each of our talents, and examine how different departments come together to produce a project. For us, this experience reinforced the fact that museums, including JANM, are not made up of individuals working separately, but rather, individuals working and collaborating together to produce something great!
If you haven’t seen it already, I Want the Wide American Earth is on display at JANM until October 27th. Also, be sure to catch Our American Voice—a special two-person show starring Traci Kato-Kiriyama, and Johnny Kwon (also the narrators of our final video), exploring six diverse stories of Asian Pacific Americans. This special performance was produced in partnership with East West Players, and will be performed at 1pm in the exhibition gallery every Saturday for the duration of the exhibition.
In preparation for the opening of Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986, Collections staff received 38 special collections comic books from the Fales Library at NYU. The comics have arrived!
Comics featured include a Green Hornet from 1944, Yellow Claw from 1956, Wonder Woman from 1956, Justice League of America from 1967, Iron Man from 1969, Captain America from 1970, Batman from 1972, and many, many more!
Don’t miss out on the exhibition opening on Thursday, October 10th at 6 p.m. or the FREE fun-filled Target FREE Family Saturdays event on Saturday, October 12th from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
As the incoming Collections Manager at the Japanese American National Museum, I am amazed by the sheer depth of artifacts and artworks that comprise the Japanese American experience. Having admired the institution’s mission and values from an outside perspective, I am happy to become part of the thriving community that is “behind the house” in the collections at JANM.
It is the goal of the Collections Management and Access Unit (CMA) to preserve the collections for future generations and to utilize them to their fullest potential as ambassadors and storytellers for the Museum—for the collections are the cornerstone of the Museum. One wonderful way to achieve this potential is to use our temporary exhibitions as an entryway into exploring our own collections.
We are excited to have the opportunity to share some of JANM’s collection alongside the traveling exhibition, Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986, which comes to us from the NYU Fales Library & Special Collections. CMA and Education Staff realized the potential of pairing our collection of historical artifacts to enhance the exhibition in an unexpected way.
It is interesting to contemplate the idea that artist Chris Ishii never imagined Li’l Neebo sharing gallery space with Wonder Woman! A Miss Breed letter and Mine Okubo drawing in conversation with each other about the shared theme of comic books… who would’ve guessed?
Marvels & Monsters illustrates Asians and Asian Americans through racial and cultural archetypes and when paired with first person Japanese American narratives of concentration camp life told through comics, a differing perspective is shared. Through the cartoons of artist Chris Ishii’s Li’l Neebo and George Akimoto’s Lil Dan’l, artwork by Mine Okubo, and letters from young inmates to librarian Clara Breed, Museum visitors will glimpse how comics were used to express emotion and to retain a sense of normalcy in a less than ideal situation. These images, juxtaposed with the stereotypical Asian themes in U.S. comics, provide a place for reflection on the impact and power of storytelling through comics and the way in which this popular medium has shaped perceptions of history.
It is through collaborations such as these that the importance of the collections at JANM, through the stories and first person experiences of the Issei and Nisei generation, are linked to contemporary society.
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Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986 will be on display at the Japanese American National Museum from October 12, 2013 – February 9, 2014. For more information about the exhibition and related public programs, visit: janm.org/marvels-monsters
Margaret Zachow Wetherbee is the new Collections Manager at the Japanese American National Museum.
To put a personal touch from JANM on the Smithsonian traveling exhibition, we chose to complement the banners with some items from the Museum’s extensive collections. Since we have over 60,000 unique artifacts, documents, and photos in our permanent collection, it was a tough choice!
As a summer intern, I was given the (amazing!) opportunity to select these artifacts. There were several qualifiers—the artifacts would have to be both relevant to its banner’s content and interesting, whether visually or content-wise. My first step was to read through the exhibition text to get a better sense of the exhibition as a whole, then to list them out along with a brief summary and relevant information (keywords, dates, people, etc.—anything that might help narrow down artifacts). I sent the document to our Collections Associate, who searched the collections database and returned a pretty extensive list of potential artifacts. From there, it was a matter of selecting one or two for each banner and then pulling them to take a look. We also collaborated with the Riverside Metropolitan Museum to loan a few items from their historic Chinatown collections.
I don’t want to give away too much (you’ll have to come to the show to see all of the artifacts), but you’ll be able to see a really striking article written in the 1940s by the chairman of the California Joint Immigration Committee. The article, after being submitted to a national magazine, was passed around by the Japanese American Citizens League’s Equality Committee as a reminder of the challenges faced.
What I find interesting about the article is the blatantly offensive language—featuring lines such as “Because of their unassimilability and the impossibility of competing with them due to their low standards of living, Japanese immigrants have never really been welcome in the United States.” Of course I was previously aware of such anti-Japanese sentiment (how could I not, after touring Common Ground: The Heart of Community), but seeing it literally spelled out for me made an abstract concept truly hit home.
See this artifact and more in I Want the Wide American Earth from September 14 ‐ October 27, 2013! Check the exhibition page for more details.
In the eyes of ABC 7 Eyewitness News Anchor David Ono, lessons from the Heart Mountain concentration camps still resonate today. In the four-part special, Witness: The Legacy of Heart Mountain, Ono explores the camp’s history and legacy.
Witness tells the story of the camp through photos from the Hirahara collection. While incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Patti Hirahara’s father and grandfather—both avid photographers—secretly built a darkroom under their barrack. They would go on to shoot and print over 2,000 photos cataloguing life inside the camp. Interspersed are interviews with those connected to the camps, from those incarcerated such as Judge Lance Ito and his mother, to Shirley Higuchi, Chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation Board of Directors.
The Japanese American National Museum plays a role in this documentary as well. Several interviews were filmed in the Museum’s Common Ground: The Heart of Community exhibition, supplemented by archival footage from the Museum’s permanent collection.
David Ono’s Witness is a moving look into the Japanese American experience during some of America’s darkest hours, told by the people who witnessed it firsthand and complemented by striking photos from inside the camps.
This image from the Mine Okubo Collection in our archives shows a family gathered around a cast iron stove to celebrate their first Christmas in camp. It is one of the drawings by artist Mine Okubo used for her book Citizen 13660 which shares life inside the Tanforan Assembly Center and Topaz concentration camp during World War II.
It reminds us that in tough times, it’s still important to come together and celebrate with family & friends. Kodomo no tame ni. For the sake of our children, we must continue on.
Wishing you & your loved ones a Happy & Healthy Holidays!
An older Japanese American gentleman stands in front of a museum display case. Behind him is an enlarged photograph of a group of Japanese picture brides (a sort of predecessor to the mail order bride) newly arrived in the United States, looking a little lost and apprehensive. Mr. Hayashi, a volunteer at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), is explaining how he uses the photograph as a didactic tool during school tours, but he is also talking about its personal significance—his own grandmother was a picture bride.
The brides share a display case with several other objects. One of these, a document in the lower corner of the frame, reads: Keep California White. Mr. Hayashi is commenting that despite his grandmother’s ambiguous fate as the bride in an arranged marriage, the partnership was considered successful and resulted in 36 grandchildren and great grandchildren. Mr. Hayashi is, in fact, a testament to his family’s success in the face of a myriad of trials that women like the ones in the picture must have faced so many years ago. He is Nikkei, a descendent of Japanese migrants, and there are 2.6 to 3 million others with stories like his across the globe.
A global storytelling community
Allowing people to discover stories like the one Mr. Hayashi tells in the video described above is what the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles hopes to achieve through its Discover Nikkei website, an interactive multimedia website launched in 2005. Discover Nikkei was conceived as a community-building tool on a grand scale that allows users to keep up with activities at the museum, and also permits access to a part of JANM’s collections, through the Nikkei Album feature.
Through the website, Nikkei all over the world are able to communicate, connect, and share, with a particular emphasis on the U.S., Canada, Central and South America, where a large number of Japanese emigrants have settled. Altogether, Discover Nikkei presents three main areas that allow Nikkei and people interested in the Japanese diaspora to build a global network together: Stories, Community, and Resources. This wealth of primary-source material available through the Discover Nikkei website in the form of archival home videos, articles, and video profiles combine to mount a concerted effort to privilege the community’s voice over a classic museum discourse.
In the “Stories” section of Discover Nikkei, the Nikkei Album feature allows users to create collections of images and/or film, much like Flickr or Pintrest type websites. To get an idea of the diversity of voices accessible through the albums, some albums include a Japanese farming and arts community in Brazil, Baptist churches in Japan, and an origami crane-making lesson in Peru. Of the three, the last album is written in Spanish, one of the four languages in which Discover Nikkei is available; the others being English, Japanese, and Portuguese.
The museum as participant is a major premise for the Discover Nikkei website, and manifests itself both in the “low profile” JANM presents on the website, as well as in the importance it places on community members’ involvement and collaboration. Aside from website users, the website gets a large part of its content through international correspondents who range from cultural institutions to individuals who contribute articles in the Journal section of the “Stories” page and post events on the main page. A subtle museum presence displaces focus from the “experts” to the community and allows the website to take on a real, marketplace-type feeling, where stories are related, not dictated by an institution.
Nikkei History in the First Person
The JANM account in the “Nikkei Album” section also gives self-service access to a portion of the museum’s permanent collection, made up of over 80,000 artifacts, objects, photographs, and artworks. The available documents are from the Watase Media Arts Center and include an important collection of home movie footage—more than 330 film clips totaling over six hours—filmed between the 1920s and 1960s, and digitally transferred for online access. Each film clip is described and annotated on the janm.org website in the Collections, Home Movies section.
The home movies touch on a wide variety of subjects and themes in the lives of American Nikkei, including work, play, home, and family life. Some extraordinary footage is also consultable, dating from the period of internment of Japanese Americans at several camps across the country from 1942 until the end of World War II, including that of Heart Mountain in Wyoming. The clips depict daily life at the camps from the point of view of the internees themselves, and are a grim reminder of the extent to which certain communities have had to grapple with a “Keep California White” mentality.
Although the Nikkei experience translates well through images, text is also an important component of the Discover Nikkei website. Through the “Stories” “Journal” rubric, we meet Norm Masaji Ibuki, a Canadian Nikkei struggling to come to terms with his government’s non-action in the face of recent devastating events in Tohoku, Japan, where he once lived. Since the earthquake hit on March 11th, 2011 Norm has been keeping tabs via email and telephone on an old friend, Tomo and his family, stranded not far from the earthquake epicenter. “The Great Tohoku Disaster” series allows readers to listen in on a conversation that is as fascinating as it is terrible, as we progress from not knowing the family’s whereabouts, to learning that they are in Tokyo trying to find a way back to Canada, leaving house, belongings, and friends behind.
The over 100 available videos feature a diverse array of Nikkei living in Japan and abroad, sharing their life experiences and what they have learned from them. Each video is meticulously transcribed, then translated into all four languages available on the website. The library of stories we are privy to through the Interview section provide audiences with first person accounts of the Nikkei experience, much like the images in the home movies from the collection also available through the site.
Tools for empowerment
Issei, Nisei, Sansei… These terms and many others are peppered throughout the Discover Nikkei website. They are words used to denote how far removed a person is from their Japanese heritage by generation, and they provide a kind of reference for those who are initiated to the lingo. At the time this article was first published, the “Nima of the month,” or featured Discover Nikkei member, is a Sansei, a third generation Japanese, born in the U.S. His wife is Yonsei, fourth generation Japanese American. The user clearly expresses himself well in English, but does he speak Japanese? Does he even feel it is necessary to speak the language in order to feel a connection to his Japanese heritage? These are the types of identity issues explored in a number of the user-written articles accessible in the “Nima-kai” rubric of the “Community” section. Here users can also post photographs and events, in a way that is similar to Facebook. A “Taiko Groups” rubric has recently been added to the Discover Nikkei website.
A critical step in the preservation of cultural heritage is the acquisition of necessary knowledge and skills. The “Resources” section of Discover Nikkei attempts to provide users with just enough guidance to encourage participation. This how-to section has detailed instructions for beginning a genealogical research project, including tips on conducting interviews, conservation basics, and even a bit of information on starting a personal collection of artifacts. These could potentially be the tools to inspire a user to create a Nikkei Album with a few of their own home movies, start a blog about Nikkei communities in countries other than the ones already featured, or maybe even dust off those old family kimonos in the attic. Discover Nikkei users participate in a variety of ways, defining and affirming the term Nikkei in an active way with the help of the website interface.
Apart from inspiring users to affirm their cultural identity, Discover Nikkei is also a remarkable example for museums that may be looking to relate to their audiences in a different, more egalitarian way. JANM’s idea was one that started small and gained momentum as the project advanced stage by stage, allowing for more complexity only after a solid framework had been put into place. JANM staff observed that one of the most important elements of website development was ease of content management. For JANM this meant that in order for content to remain relevant as the website progressed, room had to be made for constant revisions by regular staff members, as opposed to specialized IT staff. Avoiding proprietary software to cut down on costs and compatibility issues has also been a key development issue.
Through the Discover Nikkei website, JANM provides access to a rich collection of documents and artifacts that encourage Nikkei to take pride in their cultural patrimony, and to place a high value in sharing and communicating with others at a local and global level. By focusing on primary source materials and community-generated content, the museum places an emphasis on providing a forum for discussion and discovery rather than contributing expertise via a classic museum discourse. This approach, visible through the Discover Nikkei website, allows for a transfer of authority to take place, positioning in the foreground a community that has much to offer in the way of cultural tradition and values.
With special thanks to John Esaki, Director of the Frank Watase Media Arts Center, Japanese American National Museum, whose advice and comments during this collaboration were essential.
A Los Angeles native, Cynthia G. Valdez is currently working to complete a Master’s in Art History at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Cynthia has written about art for various publications in France and abroad, including ArtSlant, The Paris Times, The Mag L.A., and Whitehot Magazine for Contemporary Art. When not accumulating stamps in her passport, she enjoys knitting, experimental music and answering emails at yomemoi(at)gmail.com. She microblogs here and here.