Historical Museum at Fort Missoula Awarded $533,000 Grant to Preserve, Interpret Japanese American Confinement Sites

The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula is honored to receive a 2021 Japanese American Confinement Sites grant worth $533,000.  

An effort of the National Parks Service, the program recognizes the Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander communities and honors their rich heritage dating back thousands of years, their contributions that shaped the history of the United States, and the ways in which moments in history dramatically influenced their lives. 

The funds will help restore and reconstruct two original World War II Alien Detention Center barracks at the Historical Museum for the purpose of creating an immersive interpretive space and state-of-the-art collections storage. The grant will improve the museum’s ability to serve our community, increase tourism and honor the 2,200 men of Japanese and Italian descent who were wrongly imprisoned at Fort Missoula during the war. 

“Our selection for this grant will allow Missoula County and the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula to increase our efforts to preserve and interpret the most intact internment or incarceration camp in the United States,” Historical Museum of Fort Missoula Executive Director Matt Lautzenheiser said.  “As our country continues to grapple with issues of social justice, it’s important for museums and cultural institutions to remain beacons of truth and places where our community can reflect on our history, both good and bad, and learn important lessons from the past.” 

Nationwide, Japanese American Confinement Sites grants will fund 22 preservation, restoration and education projects that will help tell the story of the more than 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens, who the U.S. government imprisoned following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. 

More than 1,000 Japanese men, all resident aliens barred by law from American citizenship, were held at Fort Missoula and subjected to loyalty hearings. None were ever charged with any act of disloyalty, but all remained in custody at Fort Missoula or other camps for the duration of the war.  

“History matters, and unless we understand the past — even when painful — we do a grave disservice to those who lived through that history and to current and future generations who must learn to do better,” Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said. “To that end, we must never forget the story of the Fort Missoula Internment Camp, and we are honored to receive this grant to do just that. A big shout out to Missoula County grants staff and the staff of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula for making this a reality and putting Missoula County on the map.” 

Fort Missoula is currently the largest intact World War II internment site in the country, with most major buildings of the era still in use, including the Post Headquarters with its courtroom, the hospital, commissary, officer and staff housing, barracks and other support structures. The museum has an exhibit on internment housed in an original barrack and a new exhibit in the Heath Gallery of the Main Museum building titled “Looking Like the Enemy: Issei Internment at Fort Missoula.  HMFM also hosts regular public programs and events on the site’s internment history.  

Projects associated with the 10 War Relocation Authority centers established in 1942 and the more than 40 additional confinement sites are eligible for Japanese Confinement Sites grants. The program’s mission is to teach future generations about the injustices of the World War II confinement of Japanese Americans and to inspire a commitment to equal justice under the law. The National Park Service awards grants to successful project proposals based on a competitive process, and applicants must match the grant award with $1 in non-federal funds or “in-kind” contributions for every $2 they receive in federal money. 

Historical Museum at Fort Missoula joins International Coalition of Sites of Conscience

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Today, anyone who visits Fort Missoula along the city’s western edge is treated to expansive views of the mountains surrounding our vibrant community. Some visitors, though, may not realize that this idyllic setting also harbors a dark history.

From 1941 to 1944, the U.S. government interned more than 2,200 Japanese resident aliens, Italian nationals and a small number of German nationals following the country’s entry into World War II.  The Italian men were held at the Fort Missoula Alien Detention Center until Italy’s surrender in 1944. For the Japanese, Fort Missoula served as a way station while they were subjected to an enemy alien hearing board that decided whether the men were likely to be disloyal to the United States. Though none of the Japanese men were found to be disloyal, the majority were still sent from Fort Missoula to one of several War Relocation Camps across the country that held over 120,000 Japanese Americans. At Fort Missoula, both the Japanese and Italians were held in one of the 29 barracks that once occupied the fort’s eastern side.

The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula has restored several of those barracks, using them and other remnants of the era to educate the public on this important, if difficult, aspect of Western Montana history. Its newly minted membership in the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience will allow the museum to elevate this mission even further.

According to its website, a Site of Conscience is “a place of memory – a museum, historic site, memorial or memory initiative – that confronts both the history of what happened there and its contemporary legacies.” Membership as a Site of Conscience connects HMFM to more than 250 worldwide sites that interpret tragedies and atrocities, such as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., detention under dictators in Latin America, life in a Russian Gulag, and transiting to death camps during the Holocaust. The coalition’s mission is to not only impart the story of what happened at each site, but to promote civil action to prevent history from repeating itself.

“By joining the Sites of Conscience, we’ll be able to network with these sites and learn additional ways to interpret difficult histories, which will be helpful as we continue to raise awareness of the story of the Fort Missoula internment camp,” says Matt Lautzenheiser, HMFM executive director.

Lautzenheiser predicts HMFM’s designation as a Site of Conscience – the first in Montana − will help with several projects, including the museum’s continued work to fully restore two additional detention barracks. The museum also is partnering with the Missoula Art Museum to create two complementary exhibits: one at MAM featuring artwork reflecting on Japanese internment and incarceration, and another at HMFM elaborating on the history that inspired the art and the story of Fort Missoula and the other Department of Justice camps. Museum staff envision four to six public programs that will accompany the exhibits, which are on track to open in fall 2020. And while it doesn’t include funding up front, membership does open the door to grant opportunities that could help finance some of these initiatives.

In addition to telling the site’s internment story, HMFM features fascinating permanent and rotating exhibits documenting the history of Missoula County. But don’t just take our word for it – head over and see for yourself. The museum is located at 3400 Captain Rawn Way, at the heart of the Fort Missoula National Historic District. It’s currently open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. And, thanks to a 2002 voter-approved levy, admission is free for all Missoula County residents. You can learn more about the museum and its current exhibits at www.fortmissoulamuseum.org.