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A More Perfect Union review

3

April 7, 2015 by jjackson39

Though the ongoing pursuit of improving democracy is never purported to be an easy or painless process, some moments in this history for the United States have been more of an indication of severe ‘growing pains’ than others. The internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans, most of them legal citizens, during the outbreak of U.S. involvement in World War II is without question one of these darker moments. The exhibit by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History entitled “A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans & the U.S Constitution” is a presentation of the greater machinations of the history of this incident, paired with personal recollections of individuals who spent over three years in massive prison camps across the country for simply being of a particular national descent. In addition the site highlights the contributions of some 25,000 Japanese Americans who fought and protected their country despite many of them having family simultaneously interned back at home. With so many factors, both emotional and political wrapped up in this issue the exhibit has a significant task on its hands to both explain why this shameful event occurred and explore the longer impact that this internment has had on pursuit of freedom and security for all Americans.

The main overarching of this online exhibit is to serve as a digital recreation of the  original exhibit from 1994 that was displayed at the Smithsonian and to provide a platform for newer generations the consequences of generalizing the intentions of minority groups in America. Funding for the website portion of this exhibit came from three sources: The Rockefeller Foundation, The AT&T Foundation and The Smithsonian Institution Asian Pacific American Program.

More than even some other complex and emotional exhibits this site deals with strong sentiments regarding immigrants and their ‘American-ness’ that are still held by many to this day and are always at risk of returning quickly to a predominant role. As the online site’s curator Jennifer Jones stated publicly just before the digital site launched in November 2001, the then recent 9/11 attacks were poised to once again test the country’s tolerance and “we have to look to history to help us understand that individual rights and civil liberties will once again be tested”. With such heavy subject matter both past a present to navigate it seems daunting from the outside to delve too deeply into these topics for fear of courting controversy but thankfully the excellent work of the museum staff involved helped to bring in my opinion a bit of hopefulness and levity to a topic that undoubtedly can benefit from such deft treatment.

One of the best examples of this all-encompassing presentation of information can be seen in both the ‘Overview’ as well as the first main section, “Immigration’. While most sites provide adequate overview and preliminary historical information, this exhibit went beyond the norm by having one of the six main sections of the exhibit be solely focused on providing objects and information that laid out where anti-Japanese sentiment stemmed from in America, which ultimately fueled the creation of internment camps. By presenting the longer history of immigration by Japaneses over the preceding half century, as well as how racism and jealousy for these people spread and was supported institutionally by politicians and unions it allows even those who are unfamiliar with the history to quickly orient themselves to the many factors involved in later actions during WW II.

Each of the main sections of the exhibit unfold in a similar way to the first, breaking topics such as removal, internment, loyalty, and judgement into six or seven sub-groups covering the greater history of the time with interspersed objects related to internment as well as the sometimes heart-wrenching audio recordings of individuals from, and affected by the camps. This juxtaposition of the macro and micro-events of the period seem in my opinion to keep the visitor engaged despite the relative length of the exhibit. No section feels painfully long and the narrative thread never strays too far from its center.

As far as metadata is concerned, I have little to no qualms with any of the Smithsonian’s presentation of this information on the exhibit. In addition to easily accessible listings of the item names, sources, dates and credits, many of the items are also placed in a larger context on their individual items pages to the larger section where they are displayed. For history buffs this ‘nesting’ of information is great to see and seamless to utilize. This experience is further supplemented by the ‘Collection Search’ feature which allows to you to keyword search far more items than are in the exhibit itself, over 800 total. These can also be browsed by location of individual internment camps or theme.

A final supplemental portion of the site is the ‘Resources’ section which provides classroom activities, bibliographical info, further reading and an essay by the curator of the exhibit lead the inquisitive visitor to a wealth of information about the painstaking nature of developing an exhibit of this scale.

Despite this exhibit being designed in 2001 and not undergoing any overhaul that I can find information on, the whole experience is simple and elegant for any user to navigate and I find myself quick to show it to others as a great example of how simple sites are still often the best solution for presenting a topic online. With sites like this one that feature no resource heavy items to load or plug-ins to utilize, the site can be viewed by nearly anyone worldwide with a computer and an internet connection. Some updates to view the site on smart phones would be a real consideration if the site itself undergoes an update in the next few years.

 


3 comments »

  1. kdaly3 says:

    I’m always very impressed by the online exhibits the Smithsonian puts out, and this one is no exception. My main criticism of exhibits is often that they can often be one-sided by either focusing on one topic within a subject (especially ones as complex and vast as Japanese Internment) or by not providing multiple voices from varying perspectives. I also feel like online exhibits have something to gain by being simple and to the point: as time goes on, large organizations such as the Smithsonian do not have time for constant updates, and it’s best to keep it simple or suffer from the complexities of overdone design. This exhibit especially seems to have a wealth of information without being overwhelming, which I attribute to the simple design.

  2. Susan Prillaman says:

    Last year I prepared a comparison of how the events surrounding the internment of Americans of Japanese descent were presented in two online exhibits: A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans & the U.S. Constitution and Dear Miss Breed: Letters from Camp by the Japanese American National Museum, and in the history of the internment camp located at Topaz, Utah published by the Topaz Museum established at the site. What was most interesting to me was the difference in how the camps were described in each venue. In the National Museum of American History version, the camps were labeled “detention camps,” while the Japanese American National Museum exhibit referred to “concentration camps,” and the Topaz Museum viewed them as “prison camps.” Even so, many who wrote in the Reflections piece of the exhibit used “concentration camp” in their posts. The expression “if it looks like a duck…” comes to mind. As far as the site itself, I think it functions extremely well for one created in 2001 and carries the appearance of one that has been tweaked in the intervening 14 years.

  3. nbrown24 says:

    This was a great site and I could see how easy it would be to spend hours looking through the exhibit and subsequent collections. I agree with Susan’s comment that the site has held up well with time, and also agree with her sentiment regarding the various terms used to describe a very dark period in our nations history. It’s amazing what fear can do to people, and how that fear is played out in our society is even more astounding. It’s unfortunate that we, as a nation, haven’t learned from our past mistakes. I worked in Wyoming for a summer when I was an undergrad and drove by Heart Mountain regularly. At the time they didn’t have the interpretive center, but it always intrigued me, and as I would pass by the mountain it was hard not to think of what happened there and feel a sense of shame.

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