From Icon to Impact: Merchandise Sends a Message

June 12, 2017

By Maria Kwong

Being recognized by MSA for product development this year is indeed a great honor and I wanted to share our process with other members hoping to achieve future recognition. MSA not only provided me with access to tools and vendors that fit my very modest product development budget, it provided me with an environment where I could learn from my peers.

Being the director of a museum store with our particular mission statement–to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by sharing the Japanese American experience—has always made product development…well, challenging. Contrary to what many vendors and buyers imagine, Japanese products are not what makes up our store. We are a museum that explores the Japanese American culture, history and community; past, present and future. In fact, during the early days of the museum store, the rule was not to buy any products that were perceived as “too Japanese”. This rule served two purposes: first, it put the emphasis on the hybrid culture of Japanese Americans; and secondly, since the museum was conceived as a community-supported organization in a historically ethnic area of Los Angeles, the museum did not want to appear to be an economic threat or competitor to the merchants and businesses in Little Tokyo.

Explaining this to vendors was often met with perplexed head scratching.

So not being able to buy “off the rack” makes finding new products difficult. How do you create memorable product that would firmly imprint the museum’s mission on the visitor’s memory? Not with images of just our buildings and logo, but with images that would remind people of the history experienced through our exhibitions?

Step #1–find the icons in the museum’s collection. Being in the store, we have access to the visitor’s thoughts after they see the exhibits. What are the objects that best illustrated the stories depicted in our permanent exhibition of Japanese American history? What moved them and made history live for the moment?

The first objects we translated into product were inspired by a 55-gallon metal drum full of rocks that was found on the site of the former concentration camp at Heart Mountain. Each rock had been carefully painted with a single Japanese kanji. Initially the rocks were dubbed “The Heart Mountain Mystery Rocks”. Later research uncovered the fact that they were stones that formed Buddhist sutras that were placed around the cemetery at Heart Mountain.

Step #2–find the right product fit

The easiest takeaway for these objects was a postcard, so that was the natural first product. But, around that time, ‘affirmation’ stones were becoming popular. We selected a few of the kanji and had them reproduced by a local calligrapher, instead of relying on standardized Japanese fonts. A vendor was found who took the calligraphy and etched the kanji into the stones, for a more permanent object. This made the objects represent our institution in a completely customized way that respected the originalsht-mt-stones-old-new.

When we announced that we were going to sell rocks in the store, more than a few eyebrows were raised (apparently no one was around when Pet Rocks were popular.) That was 18 years ago, and our line of stones continues to sell and has expanded to include other Japanese words of power that have persisted in Japanese American vernacular.

Sometimes the icons are more straightforward, like the Civilian Instructions Poster, whose headline has become an iconic image, immediately identifiable with the most Japanese American moment in history—the incarceration during World War II. No one had ever used this image on anything but a reproduction poster (and that was from another institution.) Our first product was in response to people wanting a souvenir magnet from our museum. Rather than using a photograph of the museum, we took this icon and reduced it down to a standard fridge magnet to see if it would still retain its power as an image if you could only read the headline. It is now our most popular magnet and was made by Found Image Press*.

Again, the right product fiinstructions-tagst can make a more powerful product. Product #2, was inspired by the text of the poster, which contained the oft repeated words of former incarcerates remembering their experience—you could take “only what you could carry.” We put the headline on one side of a tote bag and excerpted the paragraph describing what items were allowed to be brought into the camps. We created an informational tag whose shape and color echoed the ID tags that people had to wear when leaving their homes for parts unknown. This product was launched at a convention with some trepidation. But soon we were spotting people walking around with their totes and engaging in conversations with curious passersby. It was a conversation starter, a chance to share the story that is at the core of our museum.

Product #3, the t-shirt, was planned for the upcoming exhibition “Instructions to All” which was opening on the 75th anniversary (February 2017) of the signing of Executive Order 9066, the order that sent the Japanese Americans to camp. The exhibition planning was in progress two years in advance, but a funny thing happened along the way—the 2016 election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States. Crazy things were happening and being said; xenophobia was on the rise and with it a counter rise in activism for civil rights. The times were resonating with our mission and we started feeling that a more active voice needed to be raised, not just a cautionary tale. With that in mind, production was moved up on the t-shirt and under the iconic headline, new words were added —  a call to action. By the time the 75th anniversary exhibition opened, everyone knew what an Executive Order was. The t-shirt started showing up on social media and at marches around the country.

The last piece in the series was, ironically, a printed reproduction of an image of an actual Civilian Instructions poster in our collection.

Great product development presents your museum’s mission in products that will resonate and become a catalyst for learning and (hopefully) transforming the world.

And now I’m off to find the next icon!

*MSA Vendor.maria-kwong-pic

Maria Kwong is the Director of Retail Enterprises at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, California

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