The JANM Store was recently the proud recipient of a 2017 Museum Store Association (MSA) Recognition Award for Product Development. The award recognized the Instructions to All Persons product line, which includes a tote bag and a t-shirt. Inspired by the Civilian Exclusion Orders posted during World War II to inform persons of Japanese ancestry of their impending forced removal and incarceration, these products perfectly embody the museum’s mission to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by sharing the Japanese American experience.
Maria Kwong, JANM’s Director of Retail Enterprises and a current MSA board member, accepted the award at the MSA Conference & Expo in April. She has also written an essay about how she came to develop these products. Below is an edited excerpt.
The Civilian Exclusion Order, with its bold headline reading “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry,” has become a symbol of a defining moment in Japanese American history: the World War II incarceration without due process of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry. The first product we developed around this historic document was in response to requests for a souvenir magnet. Rather than using a photograph of the museum, we decided to take the Civilian Exclusion Order and reduce it down to a standard refrigerator magnet. Made by Found Image Press, it is now our most popular magnet.
The next product was inspired by the text of the document, which contains the instructions that are so often repeated by camp survivors remembering their experiences—you could take “only what you could carry.” We put the full instructions on one side of a tote bag and the iconic headline on the other. To explain the history behind these words, we created a special informational tag that resembled the ID tags that the prisoners were forced to wear on their journeys to the camps.
The tote bag was launched at a convention in Seattle, with some trepidation as to what kind of reception it would get. But we soon spotted people walking around with their totes and engaging in conversations with curious passersby. The bag was a conversation starter—a chance to talk about the story that is at the core of the Japanese American National Museum.
The t-shirt was initially developed to complement the exhibition Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066, on view at JANM through August 13. Plans for the exhibition, which commemorates the 75th anniversary of the signing of the executive order that paved the way for the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, were in place two years in advance. However, a funny thing happened in the meantime: the election of Donald Trump to the office of President of the United States.
Xenophobia was on the rise and with it, a renewed passion for civil rights activism. The times were resonating with our mission and we started feeling that a more active voice needed to be raised, not just a cautionary tale. With that in mind, production was moved up on the t-shirt and new words were added to the iconic headline—a call to action “to all persons who believe in civil rights.” By the time Instructions to All Persons opened in February, the t-shirt was showing up on social media and at marches and protests around the country.
From the very beginning of my association with MSA, I have taken the lessons of product development to heart: do your best to present your museum’s mission in products that will resonate and become a catalyst for learning and transforming the world.