CRM Journal

Book Review

Common Ground: The Japanese American National Museum and the Culture of Collaborations

Edited by Akemi Kikumura-Yano, Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, and James A. Hirabayashi. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005; viii + 227 pp., photographs, notes, index; paper $24.95.


A publication by a museum outlining its own history, philosophy, organization, and strategy is a significant source of information for interested scholars, curators, and cultural resource professionals. Falling under this category of institutional autobiography is Common Ground: The Japanese American National Museum and the Culture of Collaborations. The book offers a collection of 16 essays penned by the curators, staff, and collaborators of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) that capture the diversity of issues and challenges faced by the museum since its debut in 1992.

The central theme of the book, which not coincidentally is also the core tenet of the JANM, resounds in the book's title: community building through "the culture of collaborations." The book specifically addresses how an ethnic-specific institution in the United States plans for and asserts a local, national, and international presence. The essays are organized into three parts: The first examines the general organization and programs of the JANM; the second documents specific projects and exhibitions; and the third presents international collaborations. Loosely connected, the essays are readable as stand-alone pieces, and each addresses a significant aspect of the museum.

Like the personal autobiography, the institutional autobiography as a genre has its inherent advantages. An evident strength of Common Ground is the authors' relatively unfiltered disclosure of the technicalities of managing a museum, its collections, and exhibitions. By discussing tasks ranging from the macroscopic to the microscopic—from fundraising, board development, collection formation, and exhibition conception, to text panel placement and office supplies budgeting—the book reinforces the importance of details large and small in the successful operation of a museum of this scale.

This idea is vividly captured in the book's meticulous documentation of several of the museum's major exhibitions from planning to execution. The book presents different types of exhibits—a permanent exhibit (Common Ground: The Heart of Community), a national traveling exhibit (America's Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience), and an international traveling exhibit (From Bentō to Mixed Plate: Americans of Japanese Ancestry in Multicultural Hawaii)—which helps the lay reader comprehend the many details involved in implementing projects of different scopes.

The book raises a number of important issues. For example, chapter 2 explores the home movie medium as a significant mode of self documentation for first-generation Japanese Americans, emphasizing the recovery of the movies they shot in the 1930s as crucial to de-centering the image of prewar America as, in the author's words, "white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure." The themes of remembrance and acceptance are explored most poignantly in chapters 7 and 8. The former traces the negotiations for an exhibit at Hood River, Oregon, formerly a site of vocal anti-Japanese sentiment, while the latter parses opposing views on the use of the term "concentration camp" for an exhibit on the encampment of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Chapter 16 addresses an equally provocative issue: the implications of using value-laden terminology such as "Nikkei," "host country," and "outmarriage." The authors discuss how tackling these terms, which are indicative of a lingering uncertainty in the American half of the Japanese American identity, constitutes an essential part of the process of member self-definition today.

The theme of collaboration clearly resonates as the institutional mantra and working methodology for the JANM, and the book captures this spirit faithfully by emphasizing the different ways the museum has built meaningful relationships and pursued joint projects with other ethnic groups in the United States (Latino, Jewish, and Arab, for example) and with groups of Japanese and Japanese descent outside the United States. As Irene Hirano, president of the JANM, asserts in the introduction, highlighting the heritage and achievements of Japanese Americans has involved establishing linkages with Japan and North and South America. The objective, perhaps counterintuitive, is to emphasize what Japanese Americans hold in common with other ethnicities, rather that what distinguishes them from others.

Because so much emphasis in Common Ground is placed on presenting Japanese Americans as the core group that has reached out to work cross-culturally and collaboratively with other groups, the reader might be misled into assuming an existing homogeneity among members of the Japanese American community. Many of the JANM projects and exhibits examined in Common Ground actually signal a diverse portraiture of Japanese Americans, as exemplified by the varied times and lives captured in exhibits focusing on Los Angeles (All Roads Lead to Boyle Heights: Exploring a Los Angeles Neighborhood), Oregon (In This Great Land of Freedom: Japanese Pioneers of Oregon), and Hawaii (The Kona Coffee Story: Along the Hawaii Belt Road). Rather than adhering rigidly to the theme of cultural collaborations, the authors should have placed a greater emphasis on the originality and diversity of the JANM's presentation of Japanese Americans.

While useful as an introduction to procedures and issues, Common Ground at times suffers from a profusion of unprocessed information. Several chapters and parts of chapters read like reports and meeting minutes. The general writing style of the authors as a group tends to be rich in statistics, step-by-step recitations, and anecdotes, but insufficient in analysis, all of which point to a core problem of Common Ground: the intended audience. While the preface proffers the book as a way to "share with the reader the evolving history" of the JANM and implies a general audience, it is difficult to imagine a reader who might wish to learn about museum operations in the most basic yet technically minute terms. Nonetheless, despite occasional lapses in analysis and presentation, Common Ground is a book that offers valuable insight—the collected insights of JANM insiders—to this museum's institutional history and methodology. As a whole, the book attests to the efficacy of collaboration, both in content and form.

Alice Y. Tseng
Boston University