Powerful Objects, Difficult Dialogues: Mobilizing Archaeological Exhibits for Civic Engagement

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Community-engaged pedagogy, Participatory heritage, Japanese Americans, WWII internment, Archaeology

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College of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences, Anthropology


The causes, experience, and legacy of World War II internment is generally not well known nor understood. This ignorance may have tragic global consequences as some cite internment as a precedent for future decisions regarding immigrant populations. Archaeological items recovered from sites of internment are powerful touchstones for this muted history, connecting people and encouraging empathy. Inspired by a push toward public engagement in higher education and community curation in museums, the University of Denver Amache Project created the exhibit Connecting the Pieces: Dialogues on the Amache Archaeology Collection with items from a Japanese American internment camp. Both the process and the resulting exhibit focused on dialogue, critical reflection, and community interpretation. Conceived as a service learning component of an undergraduate anthropology class, the exhibit connected students to community partners with a stake in this history. After three iterations, the resulting exhibits have humanized the history for students and museum visitors and given individuals with a personal connection a chance to discuss a history so often silenced. This exhibit project serves as a model tested through repetition and suggests ways to encourage multivocality in archaeological interpretation.

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