Common Ground: Book Reveals Museum Behind the Scenes

How do you create a national institution from scratch?

How do you rally a community into supporting your project?

How do you turn strangers into loyal friends and donors?

How do family stories and mementos become archival treasures?

The questions seem endless.

From its humble beginnings in a tiny office space with only a handful of motivated volunteers to its rapid evolution into a large, internationally respected museum, the Japanese American National Museum has often defied conventional wisdom about how museums are supposed to work.

And people—visitors, members, public officials, heads of other nonprofit organizations, and even other seasoned museum professionals—frequently ask how the Japanese American National Museum has managed to succeed, despite extraordinary odds.

They continually ask: “HOW DID YOU DO THAT?”

Recognizing that the National Museum’s innovative approaches to doing business and forging collaborations are a whole story in itself, and one worth sharing, the institution’s staff and leadership have banded together to create a book that illuminates life behind the scenes at the institution.

Common Ground: The Japanese American National Museum and the Culture of Collaborations (University Press of Colorado, 2005) explores the struggles, challenges, and triumphs of America’s premier ethnic museum.

Edited by acclaimed scholars Akemi Kikumura-Yano, Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, and James A. Hirabayashi, Common Ground features 16 essays by current and past staff members, board members, and advisors of the National Museum. Written with candor and thoughtful attention to detail, each of the essays offers a fascinating view into the vibrant—and unpredictable—life of running a nonprofit cultural institution.

The book’s subjects are as diverse and colorful as the communities they illuminate:

  • From Bento to Mixed Plate: Americans of Japanese Ancestry in Multicultural Hawai‘i—the warm and engaging exhibition that became a surprising international hit

  • Home movies as vital historical documentation

  • Finding Family Stories

  • Bonding with the Arab American community during post-9/11 anti-Arab hysteria

  • Discovering unforgettable stories in Boyle Heights, one of Los Angeles’ most multicultural neighborhoods

  • Building a community through global research

  • In the years since its inception, the Japanese American National Museum has shown that it is a new kind of museum, one that is not always limited by the traditional boundaries of the field.

    A book like no other, from an institution like no other, Common Ground is a celebration of all that is possible when a museum becomes the heart of a community.

    May 2005

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