L.A.’s Japanese American National Museum wins federal medal for excellence, and $10,000


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The Japanese American National Museum is one of 10 winners of this year’s National Medal for Museum and Library Service, bestowed by the Institute of Museum and Library Service, a federal government agency, for “extraordinary civic, educational, economic, environmental and social contributions.”

The award is the nation’s highest government honor for museums and libraries and comes with a $10,000 prize — and the pictured medal. It’s the first time a Los Angeles museum has won for its museum programs, but the second consecutive year in which an L.A. institution has been honored.


The Braille Institute of America’s library services program won in 2009; other Southern California winners have been the Simon Wiesenthal Center, for its library and archives (2000) and the San Diego Zoo, honored in 2004 in the museum category.

The award citation, posted on the website of the IMLS, cites several exhibitions originated at the Japanese-American National Museum, which has an annual budget of $6.9 million and a staff of 39 full-time and 10 part-time workers.

“Fighting for Democracy: Who is the ‘We’ in ‘We, the People?’ ‘ opened at the Little Tokyo museum in 2005 and has traveled extensively since, most recently to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn.

“kip fulbeck: part asian, 100% hapa,” a photographic show originated at the Japanese-American museum in 2006, focuses on portraits of people of mixed-race heritage and, as the award citation notes, takes the Hawaiian word for “half,” coined as a slur on mixed-race Asians, and allows it to be “embraced as a term of pride.” The show was recently seen at the Field Museum in Chicago. A follow-up exhibition of Fulbeck’s photographs, “Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids,” closed in L.A. last month and is noted in the IMLA citation as “a playful yet powerful perspective on the complex nature of contemporary American identity…[that] encourages attendees to celebrate their own individuality.”

On Saturday, the Japanese American Museum (pictured) opened an exhibition, “American Tapestry: 25 Stories from the Collection.” It consists of diaries, documents, common objects such as a bicycle, a skateboard and a handful of marbles, as well as actor George Takei’s Mr. Sulu uniform from “Star Trek” — along with the stories of how each one illuminates the owners’ personal history and a slice of Japanese American history. The show marks the 25th anniversary of the museum’s founding in 1985; the museum building opened in 1992. Its collection numbers more than 80,000 pieces, including artworks, artifacts, photographs, documents and oral histories.

The medal is conferred by Marsha L. Semmel, acting director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, who acts with advice from the agency’s advisory board, after an open nominating process in which anyone can recommend a nonprofit or government-run museum or library for consideration. Other 2010 medalists include the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson; the Nashville Public Library, the New York Botanical Garden in New York City and Explora, a science and children’s museum in Albuquerque where the focus is on hands-on learning.


— Mike Boehm

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Photographs: National Medal for Museum and Library Service; Japanese American National Museum. Credits: Institute of Museum and Library Services (medal); Los Angeles Times file photo.