A Visit to the Wright Museum’s Exhibit “Righting a Wrong” is a Valuable Lesson
By Mark Okrant
Photos courtesy Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service
Preparation for this story took me to one of my favorite museum venues in New Hampshire, Wolfeboro’s Wright Museum of World War II. This time, my purpose was not to examine the museum’s ongoing, outstanding display of the battlefield and the home front during that war. My assignment was to visit the newly opened Smithsonian traveling exhibition, “Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II.” The Smithsonian describes the exhibit, which will be housed at the museum from May 1 to July 7, as “an examination of the complicated history and impact of Executive Order 9066 that led to the incarceration of Japanese-Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor.”
I had several concerns during my one-hour drive to Wolfeboro. The first of these was: why don’t we as Americans know more about this episode in our history? Most of us were exposed to U.S. History classes during the third year of high school. Others elected history coursework in college. Yet, up until the present, we have been taught very little about this unfortunate chapter in our nation’s past.
A second thought was whether the people at Smithsonian could provide an exhibit that a range of Americans—from the GI and Silent Generations through Generation Z—will connect to easily.
My third concern was more mundane. In an attractive space that houses more than 14,000 items—from tanks to refrigerators—would the exhibit receive the attention it deserves at the Wright?
Entering the exhibit, which is housed on the second floor of the museum, one is immediately immersed in a series of dramatic, well-captioned posters that describe the events leading up to internment. A copy of the infamous Executive Order 9066 is displayed early in the exhibit. It explains that, following the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order that sent both Americans of Japanese ancestry and Japanese nationals to ten large, barbed wire-enclosed incarceration camps and dozens of other installations, situated west of the Mississippi, between March 1942 and March 1946.
We learn from the exhibit that people were crowded together into the hastily built camps, enduring poor living conditions, and were under the constant watch of military guards for a period lasting from two-and-one-half to four years. While all of this was occurring, many Japanese-American men risked their lives fighting for the United States in the European theater.
Making our way through the exhibit, the story of how more than 100,000 people were rounded up and led to internment centers is presented in a clear, but concise manner. Given the fact that three-quarters of these people were American citizens, one can’t help but remember the words from Emma Lazarus’ sonnet, The New Colossus: “Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Since 1903, those words have been inscribed on a bronze plaque fastened to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.
The Smithsonian has clearly captured the themes of immigration, prejudice, civil rights, heroism, and what it means to be an American. However, while making one’s way through the exhibit, it becomes apparent that this privilege has not been granted ubiquitously; and, one is immediately mindful that the exhibit, which portrays events from three-quarters of a century ago, has current relevance.
Visitors have an opportunity to explore the complex history of the events leading up to, during, and following incarceration. The exhibit uses large, colorful posters and display cases showing historical photographs and drawings, personal stories, and objects from those incarcerated at the camps to tell its story. A simple duffle bag used by the Imada family, when they were relocated to the Gila River camp in Arizona, has a powerful impact. It reflects the restrictions on these people who, with very little warning, were told to sell what they could and bring only what they could carry.
Stories are shared in a variety of ways. We see Takeo Shirasawa’s 1943 high school diploma from the Poston camp in Arizona that exemplifies the experience of thousands of other teens who had to complete their high school education in camps. Also, a poster display titled, The Language of Incarceration, shows how words can soften the truth in the minds of the public.
A set of beautifully executed touch screen devices creates a dramatic introduction to what transpired. The first is an interactive map. By touching the name of a specific camp, we see scenes depicting the desolation of the location, and see photographs of ways that these amazing people, at the height of their mistreatment, devised activities designed to maintain their culture and to keep their pride and spirit from waning.
Another touch screen feature introduces us to a number of former internees, who describe the circumstances in which they were rounded up, deprived of their possessions, then forced to live in the direst of circumstances. Despite their insistence that they were loyal Americans, they were forced to endure this mistreatment because their heritage was Japanese—the nation with whom we were at war. Viewing this exhibit brought one elderly observer to tears, as she was reminded about Hitler’s treatment of Jewish people during the same war.
As we learn from the exhibit, four decades passed before members of the Japanese-American community worked tirelessly to persuade the U.S. government to address the wrong it had done. Finally, the U.S. Congress formally recognized that rights of the Japanese-American community had been violated and President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, “providing an apology and restitution to the living Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II.”
“Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II” was developed by the National Museum of American History and adapted for travel by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The national tour received Federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, the Terasaki Family Foundation, and C. L. Ehn & Ginger Lew.
This is an exhibit that every U.S. citizen should see. However, while you are in the Wright Museum, you should spend an additional hour or more viewing the facility’s permanent collection. Even if you have visited before (I’d been there on at least three previous occasions), there is much to see. Every time I visit the Wright, I find objects that I’d never noticed before. To my delight, this time I found a number of items that were recently added to the collection.
If the massive tank crashing through the museum’s front wall doesn’t set the mood for your visit, a new life-size diorama in the foyer, depicting soldiers during winter at the Battle of the Bulge, is sure to accomplish the task. Once inside, head to the Battlefield side of the museum, where you will see a large new poster depicting the words of Rosie the Riveter, “We Can Do It.” This is the perfect spot for visitors to take a selfie. In the Home Front side of the museum, be certain to view the exquisite display of Gould’s 5¢ and 10¢ Store, which is sure to bring back fond memories to those of us born in the 1950s or earlier. It doesn’t seem possible that the museum’s Time Tunnel could be any more interesting. However, there are new displays in both the 1944 and 1945 rooms that you won’t want to miss.
There is much more in store for visitors to the Wright during the weeks ahead. Following the departure of the present exhibit, “Esquire Magazine: The World War II Years,” will be on exhibit from July 14 to September 8; this will be followed by “The Last Good War: The Faces and Voices of World War II,” from September 15 to October 31.
To obtain information about these exhibits, or any of the other events offered at the museum, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.wrightmuseum.org.