Significance Across Generations: Artifacts at the Panama Hotel

By Carrie Villar posted 08-23-2017 12:06


When President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, Japanese Americans living across the West Coast had only days to pack up their lives—to decide what few belongings were essential and what to do with the many other things that they were leaving behind for an indeterminate period of time—and report to internment camps. When I try to put myself in their shoes, I feel panic and a deep sadness that anyone had to go through such an ordeal.

Panama Hotel basement collection | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

The Hori family, owners of the Panama Hotel, offered to store belongings in the hotel’s basement, which must have seemed like a godsend to the residents and business owners who lived in and around Seattle’s Nihonmachi, or Japantown, neighborhood. As they sorted and stored their belongings, they left behind evidence of everyday, normal, American lives: work overalls, pots and pans, and comic books and music albums. Some returned to pick up their belongings, but after experiencing the internment camps, many chose to move on and never returned.

More than 70 years later, these objects remain in the basement of the hotel. As the National Trust named the Panama Hotel one of its National Treasure projects and began working with the hotel’s owner to help her transition its ownership and protect the building, the team quickly realized that the collections would require special focus. Although not a confinement site itself, the hotel’s connection to camps like Manzanar made it eligible for grant funding through the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Program. In 2015 the National Trust applied for and received a grant to inventory and assess the historic objects.

For the first phase of this project, we hired Environmental Science Associates to provide collections management services and conduct inventory and documentation. We had estimated that there were approximately 2,500 objects in the basement, so we were surprised when the inventory discovered and catalogued more than 7,500.

In April 2017 we embarked on the second phase of the project: convening museum collections experts and Japanese American history experts, along with National Trust staff, to discuss the significance of the collection, the legal and ethical considerations, and its preservation and interpretation needs. Throughout the Panama Hotel National Treasure project, the Trust’s team has recognized that, as non–Japanese Americans, there might be cultural elements of this work that we could not fully understand or anticipate. While outreach to the Japanese American community has been an ongoing part of the project, when it came to the collection in the basement, we recognized that (1) there is no real precedent to guide us, (2) there is great local, national, and international interest in the fate of the collection, and (3) we have to be very considerate of the ongoing legacy of pain around the internment era.

Meeting attendees listen to Anna Tamura (center left) from the National Park Service. | Credit: Image courtesy of Carrie Villar

Fortunately, we received positive responses from the professionals whom we invited to attend our meeting at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington. Representatives from the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, the Japanese American National Museum, Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, the National Park Service, the Huntington Library, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center of Washington, and the University of Washington, as well as other museum professionals attended the convening. It was facilitated by Gail Dubrow, professor of architecture, landscape architecture, public affairs and planning, and history at the University of Minnesota. Dubrow has a long history with the Panama Hotel and with the Japanese American community in Seattle.

While the whole meeting was a terrific experience, the discussion of the objects’ meaning changing over generations proved particularly thought provoking. Many of the meeting attendees agreed that, while the Japanese Americans who were sent to the camps may have opted to put the past behind them and not return to pick up their belongings, their children or grandchildren may feel very strongly about reclaiming the objects. Paradoxically, as time goes on and it becomes harder to establish familial ownership, the attachment and sense of claim to the objects—and to the hotel itself—can actually grow stronger, especially among those for whom these objects might be the sole connection to a part of their families’ stories of which they have little direct knowledge. Thus, not only are there cultural differences to be aware of but also generational differences to work through. This underscores just how complicated this project is and how challenging determining the future of the collection may prove.

While the project is ongoing and the future of the hotel and its collection are still being determined, I am grateful that I have been able to experience the Panama Hotel, its collection, and the sobering lesson it carries with it.

Carrie Villar is the John and Neville Bryan Associate Director of Museum Collections at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the interim executive director of the Woodrow Wilson House.

#AsianAmerican #NationalTreasure #Diversity #Inclusion

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