2016 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: Beloit College
War and Peace:
Museums and the Construction of Collective Memory
Mentors: Joy Beckman, Associate Professor and Parker Chair in Art History, and Susan Furukawa, Assistant Professor of Japanese
Students: Emma Dawson, Hillary Kon, Jasmine Vasquez, Sasha Feinberg, Emma Mooney, and Mieke Miller
Six students from Beloit College under the guidance of two Beloit College faculty members spent three weeks in Japan studying War/Peace Museums. The collaboration of museum studies students and Japanese studies students focused on how various discourses of war and peace have influenced narratives of national identity and public memory in Japan. Over the course of this project, students visited more than fifteen sites in five different Japanese cities and examined a wide range of representations of war and peace in Japan. By visiting large public institutions as well as small privately-run ones, students were able to explore the tensions inherent in displays of public memory and the mutual impact on the shifting nature of Japanese national identity.
Students used their various disciplinary lenses to engage with these museums and memorials and to investigate the questions that emerged throughout the course of this project. After three weeks in Japan visiting close to twenty museums and memorials, the students learned how to read these sites and came better able to analyze the sometimes contradictory narratives of war and peace, making apt comparisons to their experiences at home. This trip taught the students how to navigate and engage with various public presentations of a culture, history, and identity. Students learned to be flexible and to manage in situations in which they were uncomfortable. Being able to understand shifting cultural contexts is an essential skill in a global community. Because of the strong partnerships with Kansai Gaidai University and Rikkyo University, as well as connections established with the World Peace Center, students had multiple opportunities to interact with Japanese university students and recent graduates. This helped them learn from and build networks with their peers, both benefits that will extend well beyond the period of the grant. Further because students have been able to engage in sustained research which they will present publicly, they are better prepared for the types of projects they will encounter in the workforce.
During my time in Japan, I drew from my education in museum studies and art history to inform my engagement with Japanese perspectives on war and peace. Through these academic lenses, I was able to understand the impact that museums—as institutions of high cultural and political authority—can have on the way that national and international stories are told. In the process, I made fascinating conclusions about how humans engage with histories of war through material culture. I used this opportunity not only to enlarge my research portfolio, but also to accumulate new skills that will put me at an advantage when I enter the job market. Learning new research techniques, growing as a critical museum visitor, and adjusting to a new culture: these skills will set me apart from other candidates as employers search for individuals with global experiences, versatile skill sets, and proof of having successfully overcome challenges. The experience was also enriched by the interactions I had with Japanese students at Rikkyo University, during which different perspectives were brought together. Visiting museums with these students and discussing our differing national and personal histories, was enlightening and meaningful. My experience in Japan solidified both my belief in the fostering of international relationships as well as in the importance of preserving cultural objects. I will continue to engage with what I learned as I prepare to publicly share my experience through a symposium presentation at Beloit College in November, and to apply my learning to current and future coursework.
My essay is a reflection on my experiences in Japan, how they relate to my Symposium Day presentation and my personal growth, and my observations of Japanese peace museums. The countries that were involved in World War II still struggle today with accepting the responsibility they have for various atrocities and balancing that with the losses they suffered as a victim. In my essay, I discuss how this challenge is seen in Japanese peace museums. Peace museums tend to be politically inclined in their displays and text, often focusing on either Japan as an aggressor, as is seen in the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace, or Japan as a victim, as is demonstrated in the Yushukan Museum. In my essay, I also examine how my interpretation and experience with the museums was influenced by my interaction with Japanese students, who lent their outlook on the political leaning of the Yushukan museum, and the survivors of the atomic bombs and the Tokyo air raids, whose testimonies brought horrifying authenticity and perspective to those tragic events. I additionally write about how the trip to Japan also helped me improve the academic skills of long-term project writing and revising, which are imperative to being accepted into and finishing a master’s degree. Furthermore, being in Japan has exposed me to many new cultural experiences and will be extremely useful to my future career working in a museum, where cultural sensitivity is paramount. Finally, in my essay I discuss what work I have already done and what I still must accomplish for my project. Research before and during the trip have allowed me to focus on putting together my Symposium Day presentation on the politically influenced narratives of Japanese peace museums.
Three weeks were spent in Japan on a research trip. On this trip, my main focus was upon the narratives told about World War II. My research question was what motivates survivors of horrid tragedies from the war to repeatedly share their stories (in art, museums, with student groups, and so on). My hypothesis was that in some ways this repeated discussion is a coping mechanism, even as it brings the trauma back over and over again. Many people suffer from survivor’s guilt and stigma, and the feeling that they are spreading peace may be a way to help lessen that burden. Further, being the ones to share their stories when and how they choose seemed like a form of empowerment. My research revealed that it seems to go further than that, however. While that may be a subconscious part of it, it seems that their primary goal is to help spread the message of peace, believing that knowing the horrors from the war will cause people to oppose war and advocate for peace. In learning about these things, the museums have been incredibly important, but even more than those, the chance to speak to survivors has been absolutely indispensable to my research. During this trip to Japan I had the chance to speak with several survivors of war tragedies. I also had the opportunity to increase the depth of my knowledge of Japanese culture in many ways, such as by speaking to students from various universities in Japan. I feel already that all of this has influenced me greatly as a person. Additionally, I was able to improve and gain many skills that I know will be incredibly important to my future career and general life success, such as speaking to people even when I am not sure of myself and confidence.
My project aims to explore narratives in Peace Museums in Japan, and look at how the United States is presented within the stories that are being told. I used analysis of both the language and information in the exhibits to gain perspective on how America is presented in Japanese WWII museums. The lack of directly blaming the atomic bombing on America, or even having the sentence “The United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima” is a constant approach in many of the museums. Exploring the reasoning behind this, and the overall picture of America that these words-or lack thereof- present is integral to understanding the relationship between these two countries today. In addition to this project, the journey I have made in creating and studying Japanese war narratives is important to my academic and personal career. In talking to Japanese students as well as Hibakusha, I have gained a better understanding of the impact this war has had on Japanese people. I have been able to connect to the project material in more meaningful ways than just reading wall texts or textbooks. Collaborating with my peers, exploring and creating a project that I am fully interested in, as well as becoming fully immersed in a culture and its history is an experience that has given me many new perspectives and learning experiences. Through this project I have gained a better understanding of how to conduct and present academic projects, and have learned many skills that will help me in the future.
My focus on Japan’s collective memory of the Pacific Wars and World War II looks at the issue through an economic lens. Liberal museums present less bias viewpoints, mentioning not only Japanese suffering but also suffering caused by the Japanese. Conservative museums on the other hand tend to express the war solely from the then Japanese government’s point of view. Through the economical lens, I used prices and availability of food as an indicator of well being. The depletion of food sources led to the emergence of food-rationing systems and shrinking portion sizes, in addition to the black market. The narrative of food is an important aspect of collective memory because it allows for comparisons regardless of whether a person was viewed as a war victim or war perpetrator. Our interactions with locals left a lasting impression, dispelling the notion that Japan has a single nationalistic attitude. Sentiments on the issue of collective memory varied across people of different groups and ages. Not only has this research opportunity broadened my views on this issue, but it has also taught me the importance of looking at the purpose of narratives. Secondly, it has given me the indispensable experience of forming my own research and building upon it. More importantly, it highlighted the complexity of navigating through a different culture from another lens.
For my ASIANetwork project, I was interested in looking at how modern-day peace and war museums depicted children during World War II and also how the museums presented the information of World War II to the children of today. The museums incorporated different techniques to distribute information. The Showakan in particular, created a different experience for adults and children, part of which involved having two separate pamphlets containing different information. Most museums also included some kind of interactive exhibit such as a stamp rally or a game or simulation. Going on this trip to Japan gave me a chance to talk with students from Rikkyo University and Kansai Gaidai. Having the opportunity to walk through the museums with them, I gained a new perspective on the information presented and got to learn about the Japanese students’ own experiences on learning the materials in school. We also got to interact with museum curators and hibakusha (survivors of the atomic bomb) who had experienced the events such as the Tokyo air raids and the atomic bombs first-hand. It was very moving but one of the concerns brought up is how the number of people who are able to share their personal stories is decreasing and what that will mean for future generations. During the trip, I also underwent personal growth and learned to navigate urban spaces that I am not accustomed to. I got to apply my Japanese conversation skills, reading skills, and listening comprehension both inside the museums and outside. Due to my five years of Japanese language study, I was also considered one of the people to go to for help communicating with Japanese people. I still have some more translation work left, but I will be presenting my research at Beloit College’s International Symposium this November.