New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei, which has been on view for a little over a month now, features a cornucopia of fascinating artifacts from the life of the noted actor, activist, and longtime friend and supporter of the Japanese American National Museum.
The exhibition, whose format was inspired by Takei’s role on the iconic Star Trek television and film series, is divided into five “voyages” exploring the many aspects of Takei’s life: his childhood spent in a World War II incarceration camp; his rise in Hollywood as a pioneering Asian American actor; his civic engagement and community activism; his groundbreaking all-APIA Broadway musical, Allegiance; and his current status as a social media icon.
George and his husband, Brad, have been collecting and organizing their various possessions for years. The 200 artifacts that are currently on view in New Frontiers represent just a small portion of The George & Brad Takei Collection, which was donated to JANM last year and is still being processed as we speak. During a recent Members Only Learning at Lunch event, Collections Manager Maggie Wetherbee regaled an enthusiastic audience with tales of the 300 boxes and nearly 200 framed objects that she and her team collected from the Takei home. The exclusive gathering focused on a selection of objects that did not make it into the exhibition.
These included Boy Scout photos from George’s childhood, a personal scrapbook that George himself put together, samples of fan mail he has received, and a copy of the script for the January 15, 1987, episode of Miami Vice, on which George was a guest star. Wetherbee also shared a number of interesting stories that she heard during the process of reviewing the items at the Takei house.
If you have not yet seen the exhibition, we offer a few highlights in this blog post, along with a bonus image that was taken at the Learning at Lunch event. Note that another Learning at Lunch event will take place on June 3 and will also spotlight items from The George & Brad Takei Collection that did not make it into New Frontiers. If you are not yet a member, click here for information on how to join and enjoy great benefits like this one.
This weekend, JANM opens New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. Drawing on the George & Brad Takei Collection of personal artifacts, which was recently gifted to the museum, New Frontiers explores the life and career of the pioneering actor, activist, and social media icon. The exhibition begins with Takei’s incarceration at the Rohwer and Tule Lake concentration camps as a child during World War II and moves through his career as a Japanese American actor in Hollywood, his public service appointments, his coming out as a gay man, his activism on behalf of both the Japanese American and LGBTQ communities, and his wild popularity as a social media figure. In the process, New Frontiers provides a unique window onto American history and culture in the 20th and 21st centuries.
New Frontiers is curated by noted author, journalist, and cultural critic Jeff Yang. We sat down with Yang via email to talk about the exhibition and his curatorial process.
JANM: Why George Takei, and why now?
Jeff Yang: George’s life has been extraordinary, and it has placed him at the center of some of the most critical changes in American society and culture: from the injustice of the Japanese American incarceration during WWII, through the fight for marriage equality, the struggle to overcome Hollywood stereotypes, the push to own our creative voice as Asian Americans, and the transformative rise of social media. In many of these circumstances, he wasn’t just a witness but a prime mover. These facts alone would make him an exceptional individual to explore through the lens of history. But, at 79 years old, George has never been more active, more outspoken, or more relevant. The changes we’ve seen over just the past six months have underscored the narratives in George’s life and made it clear that we still have many lessons to learn from the experiences he’s had.
JANM: How did you come to be the curator of this exhibition?
JY: I’ve known George for many years, having written about popular culture and Asian American issues since the late 1980s. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid, and since becoming an adult, I’ve had the fortune of befriending him as well. I’d curated another large and complicated pop culture exhibit for JANM in 2013 (Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in US Comics, 1942–1986) and I suppose George, and the powers-that-be at JANM, thought my experience and POV were a good fit for this historic show.
JANM: What is your biggest goal for this exhibition?
JY: I want people to get a unique lens on the last 80 years of American history and to learn, especially now, how our rights have been won and protected through the years and why it’s critical to remember how we’ve fought for them. And also to have a great time! Visitors should expect to have an experience that we hope will make them want to come back again—with friends.
JANM: We understand you’ve been combing through a lot of George’s personal possessions. Which ones have you found particularly intriguing, and why?
JY: The process of curation has been exhausting because of the sheer volume of items we have available! George and his husband Brad have donated virtually everything in a lifetime of collecting to the museum—over 100 boxes of amazing stuff, and it has taken a year just to sort through everything. There were personal Takei family memorabilia from the camps; early images from Asian American—or, as they called it then, “Oriental”—Hollywood; behind-the-scenes artifacts and personal notes from Star Trek, the Broadway musical Allegiance, and George’s many other roles and works; intimate correspondence and mementos from Brad and George’s wedding and life together; and iconic merchandise and one-of-a-kind fan art given to George over the years. We are also doing our best to make the exhibition richly interactive and contextual; there’s a ton to learn from it even if you’re not a Star Trek fan.
As for my personal favorite item? I think it’s probably the pocket “casting directory” of Hollywood’s Asian/Pacific actors dating back to the 1950s. It shows some familiar faces and many more obscure ones, all presented with stereotypical one-liners that underscores how Hollywood saw them. Things have certainly changed since then—but not as much as we might have hoped!
JANM: What gave you the idea to produce a comic book in conjunction with the exhibition?
JY: We realized early on that any catalog for an exhibition of George’s unique life would need to be highly visual, and to weave memory and imagination. The graphic novel form was ideal for that! So Excelsior: The Many Lives of George Takei is your guide through the exhibition in comic book format. We’re also putting together a graphic anthology of stories inspired by George’s life and the issues he has engaged throughout it, called (like the exhibition) New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. The latter is more like a catalog for the exhibition, but done in an eclectic comic book format. Unbound Philanthropy is generously funding that project.
JANM: Has working on New Frontiers changed any of your opinions on popular culture or APIA history?
JY: It’s made me realize how much has changed over the past 80 years—how we as APIAs have moved from the fringes to the center of popular culture, and how popular culture has moved from the fringes to the center of society. And George has been a significant part of that.
Join us on Sunday, March 12, for the public opening ofNew Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei. There will also be an Upper Level Members’ Reception on Saturday, March 11, at 7 p.m., with an opportunity to meet George, Brad, and Jeff personally. For information on becoming an upper level member, please visit this page.
On February 18, JANM will open Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066. Presented in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which paved the way for the World War II incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, Instructions to All Persons is an educational and interactive exhibition designed to engage visitors in critical discussions of the Japanese American incarceration experience.
Original documents, contemporary artworks, and documentary videos will form the substance of the exhibition. Through May 21 only, the exhibition will include two pages of the original Executive Order 9066 and the original Presidential Proclamation 2537, a key precursor to EO 9066 that required aliens from the enemy countries of Germany, Italy, and Japan to register with the US Department of Justice. Both documents are on loan from the National Archives.
Awareness of the impact of executive actions—including executive orders, presidential memoranda, and presidential proclamations—is particularly high right now. During his first two weeks in office, President Trump issued 22 executive actions, ranging from an order to build a wall along the US-Mexico border to a ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim countries. Some of these actions caused widespread consternation, with the travel ban most notably causing significant disruption in the daily lives of many Americans.
Executive actions are handed down from the executive branch of government without input from the legislative branch. While they can only be given to federal or state agencies, citizens are often affected by the results. Executive orders are the most prestigious of the three types of actions; they are assigned numbers and published in the federal register, similar to laws passed by Congress. Presidential memoranda basically outline the administration’s position on a policy issue, while presidential proclamations are often ceremonial in nature (with the Emancipation Proclamation being a notable exception, along with the aforementioned Presidential Proclamation 2537).
A look at the history of executive actions reveals that they are a way for presidents and governors to flex their power, ostensibly for the good of the nation, and sometimes in the face of great criticism. Trump’s rapid series of actions is generally seen as an effort by an “outsider” president to quickly establish power and begin following through on campaign promises. In comparison, President Obama famously resorted to more executive orders during his second term when he was unable to pass legislation through a particularly intransigent Congress.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the author of EO 9066, issued more than 3,700 executive actions—by far the highest number in American history. With a prolonged presidential term that spanned both the Great Depression and World War II, Roosevelt’s aggressive use of executive actions could be seen as an ongoing form of crisis management. For example, his very first executive order on Inauguration Day ordered the closure of all banks for four days to begin restructuring the financial system under the New Deal. Later, he issued an order to seize factories, mines and other privately owned industrial facilities for wartime production.
How justified were Roosevelt’s sweeping orders? While some are credited with establishing policies that were beneficial to the stability of the American people, others, like EO 9066, have been discredited. When do presidents overstep their boundaries? Which of Roosevelt’s orders would you support today, and which would you be inclined to question or even protest? How will Trump’s and Obama’s orders be seen 75 years from today?
Instructions to All Persons aims to provide a space for questions like these. Come see the exhibition to examine the social impact of language and consider the lessons of the past and how they continue to be relevant today.
The recent election has brought many social and political issues to the forefront of American consciousness. Stoked by sensationalistic news coverage, debates and statements have often been heated and not always productive. To counteract this phenomenon, we at the Japanese American National Museum thought we would try a different tactic. Thus, to begin this new year, we invite you to join us in connecting with other museum visitors in a search for “common ground.”
Beginning on January 12, JANM will present a four-week series of public conversations taking place in the galleries of our core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community. Elements of the exhibition, which chronicles 130 years of Japanese American history through hundreds of objects, documents, and photographs, will serve as jumping-off points to start each week’s conversation. Sessions will take place on consecutive Thursday evenings from 7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., and each one will focus on a different topic. Staff members from the museum’s education department will lead and facilitate the discussions.
Following are the topics for each conversation:
January 12: Compassion
January 19: Transparency
January 26: Speaking out
February 2: Solidarity
Our hope is that Common Ground Conversations will generate meaningful dialogue centered on each week’s topic, using Japanese American history to delve into contemporary issues and current concerns. No tickets or RSVPs are required. Common Ground Conversations coincide with JANM’s free admission on Thursdays starting at 5 p.m.
Every week, hundreds of visitors view JANM’s core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community. While the story resonates strongly with Japanese American visitors, who can see their own family histories in it, the importance of community is something that can be felt and understood by visitors from all different backgrounds. The exhibition begins with an introductory panel, which sets the stage for a story of immigrants:
Community is not just where you live.
Community is also about who you are.
Immigration is central not only to the Japanese American experience, but that of all Americans:
We are on common ground with all Americans,
with all people.
The exhibition traces Japanese American history through the struggles of immigrant mothers and fathers, the trauma of World War II and the concentration camps, and the ongoing quest to find a place in this country. Through it all, the importance and fluidity of the concept of community is explored; it is both an ideal to aspire to, and a source of comfort during trying times. Common Ground closes with a look to the future:
in the stories we tell each other,
in the stories we tell others.
As we reinvent America,
from monolithic to multicultural,
to include all of us
in all our magnificent diversity,
we forever re-vision the American experience.
Visitors of all ages, ethnicities, and cultures are invited to explore their own history and appreciate the differences among us while also remembering our similarities. By doing so, we reflect on and create what it really means to be American.
Just announced! JANM presents Common Ground Conversations, a four-week series of themed public conversations inspired by Common Ground: The Heart of Community. Read our press release for complete information.
Over the weekend, JANM opened a new special display, Only the Oaks Remain: The Story of Tuna Canyon Detention Station. Organized by a grassroots group called the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition, the display tells the true stories of those targeted as dangerous enemy aliens and imprisoned in the Tuna Canyon Detention Station, located in the Tujunga neighborhood of Los Angeles, by the US Department of Justice during World War II. The detainees included Japanese, German, and Italian immigrants who were considered spiritual, educational, and business leaders in their communities, along with Japanese and other individuals who had previously been forcibly removed from Latin America.
As noted by Hyperallergic magazine, this display is especially relevant right now, in light of some current political rhetoric that favors creating a database of all Muslim Americans in response to terrorist threats. The public hysteria that has led to the targeting of millions of innocent Muslim Americans is eerily similar to the WWII hysteria that quickly led to the incarceration, without due process, of 120,000 people of Japanese descent—most of whom were American citizens, and all of whom were innocent of any crimes.
Thanks to the Japanese American Redress Movement, the US government formally apologized for its actions during WWII, admitting that they were “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” As part of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, monetary compensation was awarded to each family that was incarcerated. Because of these official actions, Japanese Americans and others felt that the incident had been sufficiently exposed and denounced in the public arena.
Just this past week, however, a Los Angeles Times article exploring the history lessons offered by various national parks, including the Tule Lake Unit and Manzanar National Historic Site, was met with two letters published in the newspaper’s travel section insisting that the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans was entirely justified. The publication of the letters caused an uproar, particularly among the Japanese American community—this was addressed by the Times via their Readers’ Representative Journal blog. Former JANM staffer Koji Steven Sakai also appeared on KPCC’s Take Two show on December 14, explaining to listeners why the letters were so offensive to his community, and offering some historical context.
The Japanese American National Museum is committed to sharing the history of Japanese Americans in order to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity. An important focus of this mission is ensuring that what happened to this group of individuals during WWII never happens again, to any other group of people.
Come to JANM this Saturday for a taste of Samoa! To celebrate our exhibition, Tatau: Marks of Polynesia, the latest JANM Free Family Day will feature a variety of crafts and cultural activities that celebrate Polynesian culture and the art of tattoos. Included will be performances and workshops spotlighting the traditional dances of Samoa. Guests will have a chance to learn the basic steps of fa’ataupati (slap dance), siva (traditional dance), and the fire knife dance with trained performers. (Note: actual fire and knives will NOT be used.)
To give you a sense of what these dances are like, we’ve assembled a collection of YouTube videos below. Enjoy and see you Saturday!
Between 1942 and 1944, thousands of incarcerated Japanese Americans were moved from assembly centers and concentration camps to farm labor camps as a way to mitigate the wartime labor shortage. In the summer of 1942, Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographer Russell Lee—best known for his series on Pie Town, New Mexico—documented four such camps in Oregon and Idaho, capturing the laborers’ day-to-day lives in evocative detail. Many of these photographs, which capture a little-recorded episode of American history, have never before been exhibited.
For an illuminating look at the origins of this exhibition, read our Discover Nikkei interview with curator Morgen Young. A consulting historian based in Portland, Oregon, Young studied the FSA photography program in graduate school. Working on Uprooted has taught her much about Japanese American history, and she believes that the farm labor camps are an important and under-recognized part of that history. In her own words: “These individuals and families volunteered for agricultural labor—they went into new environments, where they didn’t know how they would be received by the local communities. They contributed directly to the war effort and still have not received the recognition they deserve for their efforts.”
Uprooted is a multi-pronged project that includes the traveling physical exhibition, oral history interviews with subjects in the photographs who were identified by viewers, documentary videos, school curricula, and a comprehensive website. A visit to the website is a great idea both before and after your visit to the exhibition; there, you can learn more about the farm labor camps, review copies of official documents, watch excerpts of oral history videos, view photos of the camps taken by people who lived in them, download lesson plans, and more.
Help Identify People in the Photographs
When you come to see Uprooted, pay close attention to the people in the photographs. Do you recognize anyone? Efforts to identify the subjects in Russell Lee’s photographs are still ongoing; according to Young, no one in the Idaho camp images has been identified, and the organizers are hoping that LA visitors will be able to help. A photo identification binder will be made available for visitors to write down possible names and/or details about the subjects’ lives.
James Tanaka, a JANM docent, has already come forward to share his story of living in the Twin Falls camp as a child; information about Tanaka and his family is available here.
On May 29, 2016, JANM received the extraordinary gift of an original paper crane folded by Sadako Sasaki, the young Hiroshima-born girl who died in 1955 of complications resulting from radiation poisoning. Before her death, Sasaki folded over 1,000 paper cranes in hopes of recovering from her illness. Because of her efforts, which touched many people, paper cranes have since become a universal symbol of peace, hope, and recovery. The museum is honored to be the only West Coast recipient of one of Sasaki’s cranes, joining such global institutions as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 Tribute Center in New York, and the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri.
Highlights of the gifting ceremony can be seen in the below video, produced by JANM’s Frank H. Watase Media Arts Center. The moving event included remarks by Clifton Truman Daniel, grandson of US President Harry S. Truman, and Masahiro Sasaki, brother of Sadako. Not included in the video were a song sung by Yuji Sasaki, Masahiro’s son, in tribute to his aunt; and a clip from Orizuru 2015, a short film inspired by Sadako’s story, introduced by director Miyuki Sohara.
This Saturday, August 6, is the 71st anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Be sure to join us at 1 p.m. that day for a special talk by Above the Fold curator Meher McArthur, who will speak about Sadako Sasaki and how her actions influenced the spread of origami practice. The talk, which will take place in JANM’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum, is part of the museum’s Tateuchi Public Programs series. Above the Fold, which looks at contemporary origami practice, is on view through August 21.
JANM’s newest exhibition,Tatau: Marks of Polynesia, opens to the public on Saturday, July 30. Tatau explores Samoan tattoo practice through photographs that showcase the work of traditional tatau masters alongside more contemporary manifestations of the art form, highlighting the beauty of the Samoan tattoo tradition as well as its key role in the preservation and propagation of Samoan culture.
Our opening day celebration will begin at noon with a traditional Samoan ‘ava ceremony. To help us understand the nature of this ceremony, our summer Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Intern in exhibitions, Alyssa Melville, researched and wrote the following essay.
The ‘ava ceremony is an ancient Samoan ritual that is performed at the beginning of all important services and gatherings. Typically led by the high chief of the hosting village, the ceremony begins with words of welcome as the participants sit cross-legged on the floor in a circle or semicircle. The proceedings include the preparation and consumption of an ‘ava drink, which is usually followed by a feast.
The drink is made by mixing the ‘ava plant, also known as Piper methysticum, with water. This is done in a tānoa (bowl that stands on multiple legs) using a fau (strainer made from the bark of the fau, or Hibiscus tiliaceus, tree) as the stirring tool. The fau strains excess ‘ava from the water; it is then tossed over the right shoulder to a soga‘imiti (a male with a tatau), who shakes out any remaining ‘ava pieces before tossing it back. This continues until no more plant pieces remain in the tānoa. The drink is then served in an ipu tau ‘ava (half of a polished coconut shell) in an order that reflects the social rank of the guests being served.
The power of this ritual comes from its great care and attention to detail. Every move made is very deliberate, from the direction in which the ‘ava is stirred to the shoulder the fau is tossed over. Both the seating and the order of consumption of the ‘ava are dictated by the hosting high chief and are representative of the social hierarchy of Samoan society.
Just as the practice of tatau has migrated and evolved over the years, so has the ‘ava ceremony. Since Samoans rely on oral traditions to preserve their history and culture, small details of the ceremony have changed over time simply due to the retelling of the stories by different generations. As Samoan emigrants have settled around the world, the various diasporic communities have developed their own ceremonies based on different stories and retellings. Some have added a prayer at the end; others have altered the dress code to better suit contemporary society.
The central purpose of the ‘ava ceremony, however, remains the same: promoting unity and respect among groups.
Alyssa Melville majors in sociology/anthropology and business management at University of Redlands.