BOISE — A new traveling exhibition at the Idaho State Museum tells the story of the tens of thousands of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated by the federal government during World War II.
The exhibit opened Saturday and runs through April 5. It combines material from the Smithsonian Institution with Idaho-specific artifacts from the Minidoka National Historical Site near Jerome and an internment camp near Kooskia.
“It’s a national story with a local component,” said Museum Administrator Liz Hobson.
As discussed in the exhibit, the story began in 1942, two months after the Pearl Harbor attack.
Citing the need to protect against espionage and sabotage, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, allowing local military commanders to designate certain areas or zones “from which any and all persons may be excluded.”
As a result, more than 75,000 Japanese American citizens and another 45,000 Japanese nationals — most of whom lived along the West Coast — were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to 10 regional internment camps, including Minidoka.
“We gave the fancy name of ‘relocation centers’ to these dust bowls, but they were concentration camps nonetheless,” said Harold Ickes, the U.S. Secretary of Interior in 1946, as quoted in one of the displays.
The title of the exhibition, “Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II,” makes its focus clear from the start. While it offers plenty of historical context and insights into the daily lives of internees, it also stresses post-war efforts to convince the United States “to confront the wrong it had done, and to make it right.”
Those efforts eventually led to the creation of a national commission, which in 1982 concluded there was no military justification for the incarceration. Roosevelt’s executive order, the commission said, was founded on “racial prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
Six years later, Congress offered a formal apology and financial redress to camp survivors and their descendants.
“No payment can make up for those lost years,” said President Ronald Reagan, when signing the legislation. “This bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong. Here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”
Hobson said the Idaho State Museum spent more than a year preparing to host the exhibition. Much of the material was on display at the National Museum of American History from 2017 to 2019.
Although it highlights “a dark part of American history,” she said, the exhibit also gives people a chance to better understand the event and consider the impact of the decisions that were made.
“It’s important for museums to offer exhibits like this,” Hobson said. “We need exhibits that challenge us and make us think, while also telling a story.”
The museum augmented the Smithsonian material with several information panels and artifacts from the Minidoka National Historical Site, as well as one panel and artifact from the Kooskia work camp.
More than 265 internees from 23 states voluntarily relocated to the Kooskia camp, beginning in 1943. They earned $55 to $65 per month, helping to construct what’s now U.S. Highway 12.
Next to the information panel is a pillow cover, showing an American flag, that was woven by one of the Kooskia inmates.
The Minidoka center was a much larger facility. At its peak, it housed more than 9,000 internees, making it the seventh-largest city in Idaho.
More than 13,000 people were sent there over the course of the war. A display with more than 12,000 of their names takes up one entire wall of the exhibition room.
Hobson said the museum plans to hold a number of public programs, workshops and film screenings in conjunction with the exhibition’s 10-week run. That includes having some survivors of the Minidoka camp come in to discuss their experience.
“Most of the programs will focus on telling the story of those who went through (the camps),” she said. “Hopefully, people can leave here and connect those stories to the present day.”