Q&A with Doug Johnson, Curator of the American Concentration Camps Exhibit
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Reed Buck | 2-28-2017
Recent visitors to Powell might notice a new exhibit in the second-floor Rotunda. Entitled American Concentration Camps, the exhibit showcases historical memorabilia from the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Materials include official U.S. documentation and policies concerning the relocation, articles and publications of protest, and glimpses into the daily lives of Japanese Americans within the walls of internment camps.
We reached out to Doug Johnson, a Library Special Collections Processing Archivist and the curator of the exhibit, to discuss the process of creating the exhibit and its significance.
Where did the initial idea for the exhibit come from?
Shortly after the election, we had a meeting at Library Special Collections to discuss what we as archivists and librarians could do in the face of the incoming regime. I suggested that, since we had such a voluminous collection of materials about the Japanese internment, perhaps an exhibit could be created around those. [In that way] we could respond to various Republican voices that had suggested that it would be an educative precedent for the Muslim registry.
Walk us through the process of creating the exhibit.
Most of it was just looking at the finding aids we have online and identifying things that seemed interesting or promising. We would page certain boxes from the Southern Regional Library Facility and go through them to find materials that had intellectual and visual appeal, but could also be digested and understood rather quickly. We looked at only a small fraction of the holdings that we have because we had so little time.
Did anyone assist you in putting the exhibit together?
From Library Special Collections staff, the team consisted of myself, Caroline Cubé, Neil Hodge, and Annie Rocco-Watanabe. There were also two students who worked for the Center for Primary Research and Training - Sabrina Ponce and Joyce Wang. That was the official team; there was also other, less formal assistance from various members of Library Special Collections.
Why was this exhibit created?
We heard Republicans talking about what had happened to Japanese Americans during World War II as a good thing, a model to follow, when that incident in our country’s history has already been apologized for by Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of the Republican Party. Reparations were paid to the people who were incarcerated at that time, but that remorse - that regret - has suddenly been shoved aside, and people are pointing to it as a decent and morally just way to deal with a perceived social problem. I wanted to strenuously resist that idea and point out that this was a terrible thing that our country did - locking up its citizens without charge, without reason, merely because of their ethnicity. It is beyond frightening that powerful forces in our current government would consider doing that again.
Were you concerned at all with the graphic nature of the materials in the exhibit?
Sabrina Ponce, who worked on the exhibit, expressed that concern. I honestly did not have it myself, or if I did, I kind of did want to trigger some reaction - I mean, I didn’t want to trigger fear or anxiety or anything like that, but I did want people to take note. If you see the Jap hunting license, that should kind of stop you in your tracks, and we wanted that to be the case. But Sabrina actually reached out to some Japanese student organizations to seek their input, to inquire if they felt that would be a concern. We hoped it would be educative without being intimidating.
Were there any materials you left out, for being too graphic or for other reasons?
We did not leave anything out for being too graphic; we actually left things out for being too cheerful, because there were many propaganda efforts at the time designed to make white Americans think that everyone was really happy in the camps. We do have one case that’s devoted to the positive aspects of camp life, which I initially wanted to omit entirely from the exhibit because [it clashed with the idea] that it was a horrible, degraded kind of existence; but then I realized that it did a disservice to the people who were living there because, although they were incarcerated indefinitely in really terrible conditions, they also had to keep their spirits and hopes up. And so we have one case that is dedicated to the happier side of the concentration camp, as weird as that sounds.
Why the title, American Concentration Camps? It feels very pointed.
Well, yeah. [Laughs.] Initially, it was even more pointed. It was going to be “American Concentration Camps: Don’t Let This Happen Again”. We wanted to be very didactic and very clear about it, but the honest reason why the subtitle got removed was for graphic design purposes - we had a hard time fitting all that on a sign. Still, we wanted to make it very clear that this was a response to the current ideas going around about the Muslim registry. [As far as] the term “American concentration camp”, that’s been a long-debated terminology. Some people have felt that that creates an equivalency between the death camps created by the Nazis and the camps for the Japanese Americans. I would say - and others would say - that that is not true. The problem is when you call the Nazi camps “concentration camps”, that euphemism actually obfuscates the horror of those death camps. The internment camps were very literally concentration camps - they were meant to concentrate a population of people in a certain area. [Instead of changing the terminology for Japanese concentration camps,] we should quit using the euphemism “concentration camps” for Nazi death camps. But we do use that term advisedly; we know it’s a loaded term, and we hope that its impact is felt.
What other types of materials does Library Special Collections have in relation to the Japanese internment?
We have a lot of personal materials from various people written in Japanese that we didn’t think was great for the exhibit, but would be a very rich resource for someone who reads Japanese; we have all the incredibly dry but detailed governmental records from Manzanar with which you can construct a detailed history of what went on day-to-day [in the camp]; we have a lot of great artwork that was done in the camps that was simply too large to fit into this exhibit; and we have all kinds of school publications, yearbooks, teaching materials, and things that were used in the schools there. [The exhibit showcases] a variety of different types of materials, so I feel like we did a pretty good job of capturing the heterogeneity of the collections themselves.
What do you want viewers to take away from this exhibit?
I want them to take away that the idea that putting people into camps is a terrible thing, that it is based on racism and fear, and that racism and fear can cause people and governments to do reprehensible things. [I also want them to take away] that, once subjected to those reprehensible things, human beings can still resist and survive and thrive under those horrible conditions. As much as you try to suppress the human spirit, the human spirit will find a way to continue.
Anything else you wanted to say?
This exhibit is a very ground-level view of the internment; you can’t come away from it thinking that you’re an expert. What it does give you are these small personal views, these moments in history, and hopefully seeing them will compel you to fit it into its wider context, both as a historical event and as something being floated as a proposal now. Hopefully there’s one or two items in the exhibit that will seize your imagination and be particularly powerful for you, and if that can happen, if you can just find one or two objects that speak to you and move you, then I feel it’s a success.
The exhibit can be found in the second-floor Rotunda in Powell Library and will be on display until March 24. For more information, check out the exhibit page in the UCLA Library website. Also check out the Exhibit Tour page - an event where Doug, among others, will be talking more about the collections and their historical and topical significance.