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Major grant pushes forward efforts to recognize internment era at Fort Missoula

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Posted at 4:48 PM, May 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-26 18:55:06-04

MISSOULA  — At a time when a new generation of Americans are dealing with the issues of social injustice, a major grant is going to help us understand the role Missoula played in a chapter of history decades ago which is still being studied and understood.

During WWII at Fort Missoula, 2,200 men of Japanese and Italian descent are taken into custody and held at the Alien Detention Center as fears escalate following Pearl Harbor.

It's a story already being told through a new, thoughtful display, with pictures and artifacts telling how families were separated, but also what happened after the war. Now, the National Park Service is awarding a $533,000 Japanese American Confinement Sites grant, building upon grants last year to assess restoration of two of the original barracks.

“We kind of felt good that the organization believed in the assessment that we would be able to move forward with the grant to actually do the work, but we are so overjoyed," says Matt Lautzenheiser, Executive Director of the Museum at Fort Missoula. "I mean, it's the largest grant an organization’s ever received, and it's going to make such a huge difference for our community and also for the Historical Museum.”

It's an honor for the museum to be able to tell a different side of the confinement story in conjunction with other sites around the U.S.

“Ours is a little different," explains Lautzenheiser. "Those are Japanese-American folks within those camps, whereas ours were these Japanese nationals that were first-generation folks that had been living in the United States but weren't citizens. So it's kind of another layer of the onion, as you would say, is peeling that back."

Plans call for having a row of three barracks here, just like during the days of the camp, the first will be used for a gallery exhibit, the second for a more immersive exhibit, and the third building, which will be a reconstruction, will be used to store thousands of artifacts.

Lautzenheiser and the museum staff are honored to play a role in understanding a turbulent time in American history, and how those stories can be viewed today.

“One of the best ways to understand these modern movements is by studying our history and studying things that happened in the past and one of the things we can do is museum. I mean, we're not a political organization, but we can make people aware of their history, both good and bad, and mistakes that were made in the past," Lautzenheiser said.

"So we hopefully we educate the public in a way that we don't make these same mistakes. So I've always loved that kind of thing as far as being able to tie into contemporary movements and contemporary issues. It's kind of cliche, but they say those who don't know their history are condemned to repeat it.

"And one of our jobs as a museum is to make folks aware of our history and where we've been and where we're going. And I think you can learn from those stories of the past to make more informed, better decisions here for the future," Lautzenheiser concluded.

Lautzenheiser says the museum is very "thankful" to have the continued support of the Japanese American Confinement Sites program and says it will probably be another two years before the new facilities come online. The museum still needs to raise about 1-hundred 40-thousand dollars to complete the project.