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Aug 29, 2023

Sharing Info From Across the Pond

I was just reviewing my photos from early March when I had the extraordinary opportunity to address the Association of Cultural Enterprises (ACE) in Harrogate, UK, on behalf of MSA. Images of crocuses in the snow and the fancy-dress gala dinner seemed more like they were from a parallel universe rather than just a few months ago. It had been 22 years since I traveled abroad, and I had to expedite the renewal of my passport which had expired 11 years ago.

In spite of not having traveled internationally in so long, things did not seem “foreign” to me as they did in the past. I think this must be the result of globalization—information and trends spread so quickly from one place to another now, and the world is more open to exchanges in culture, food, and ideas. I remember when guacamole and hummus were not household words in Ireland.

One of the most exciting aspects of presenting at ACE was the unexpected chance to not only expand the reach of our museum and how we address our challenges of product development for our unique mission, but it also afforded me the experience of self-review of my work and how it has been enhanced by my affiliation with MSA.

The topic of my session was Inspirational Product Development: Expanding a Mission Beyond the Local Community–how the local Japanese American community inspired product development for the JANM shop in unexpected ways, and how the resulting products helped align the museum’s mission with current and contemporary events creating relevance and increased engagement with a broader public beyond the local community

It was a familiar topic, product development, but I was hoping to show how sometimes what seems like a roadblock to success can turn into an asset.

Preparing for the program, I realized that I would have to first explain my institution’s mission in some depth in order to make my subsequent product development examples make sense. The name Japanese American National Museum is pretty specific, but the way the public interprets it makes a difference. Some people see the word “Japanese” only, and the word “American” as merely a description of where the museum is located. So the expectation is that we are a Japanese cultural/art museum filled with samurai swords and kimonos, and maybe anime. What many visitors are not expecting is an American history lesson about immigration leading up to the incarceration of over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry (mostly American citizens). Even many Americans are unfamiliar with this chapter in history, so I expected that presenting to a mostly UK audience was going to be a daunting task.

Once I finished the intro to our museum, I talked about the specific challenges of opening a museum retail store. Having a museum store was a given to the founders because they knew that every museum should have one. But JANM was smack dab in the middle of a historic neighborhood that was known for its commercial retail shops that reflected the ethnic heritage of its Japanese-American inhabitants. The business leaders of the community were not open to having yet another retail competitor in Japanese goods. So a compromise was reached. The JANM store would not carry the same type of goods from Japan that were sold in any of the neighboring shops. The one item that was excluded from the list was origami paper because making items from origami paper was part of the educational programming of the museum. Items that could be sold were books on Japanese American history, logoed merchandise, and products that were made by Japanese American craft artists—as long as they weren’t too “Japanesey”. That was the mandate that I was handed upon taking over the museum store 24 years ago. And this was the “unexpected way” that the “community inspired product development” as stated in the session description—by telling us what we couldn’t sell!

Fortunately, before I arrived at JANM I had already become familiar with MSA and its magazines (though I hadn’t had an opportunity to attend anything in person yet!) I knew about product development based on objects in a museum’s collections, working with local artists to produce unique products for traveling exhibitions, and approaching vendors for advice in creating new products. Armed with this knowledge and the connections I gained from MSA and other institutional colleagues, I embarked on the store’s mission to find and create unique, non-competitive, and marketable products for what has now become a pretty unique collection of mission-related (and award-winning!) merchandise. To date, we have very little logoed merchandise and now carry items from Japan that actually reflect the mingling of two cultures.

Telling this story to a group of strangers gave me a new sense of energy and purpose. It is not often that one has the chance to sit and reflect on one’s work. And being in another country added another dimension to sharing that story.

(Just to be a contrarian, I decided that I would attend the fancy dress gala in a kimono. I was not alone in “representing” my roots as you can see.)

Maria Kwong, Director of Retail Enterprises

Ms. Kwong is responsible for the continued evolution and operation of the JANM retail stores (on-site and online), JANM store catalog, and wholesale enterprises. She considers and treats the store as another curatorial space for the museum, focusing on the development and procurement of products that highlight the museum’s collection and mission. By creating a stimulating retail space for people to share in the museum’s mission, she also provides another source of revenue for the sustainability of JANM.