The pavilion at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles was filled to near capacity. The 4,100-square-foot space was designed to bridge worlds and reflect a proud hybrid identity. Combining Japanese and American influences, the room’s wall of windows offers an intimate, insulated view of the National Museum’s Historic Building next door, once a Buddhist Temple and later a government-commandeered processing center that pushed around the paperwork necessary to exile thousands of WWII-era Japanese-Americans to years of wartime confinement.
But that sober, sensitive topic was not what the 300-strong crowd had gathered to discuss this night in September 2015. Nor were they there to explore the Issei generation of Japanese immigrants who came to America at the end of the 19th century or any contemporary Japanese-American trends or personages. Rather, those in attendance were there to see 10-minute presentations on topics as disparate from Japanese-American culture as outer space history, given by Smithsonian employees who had flown in from as far away as Washington, D.C. The visiting presenters spoke passionately about what they do, why they do it and what it means for America.
The diverse roster enlivened a crowd whose interests extended beyond the museum’s purview. Some in the audience, like Scott Tennent, the Smithsonian’s director of advancement communications, were looking forward to a particular speaker on the program, only to be captivated by a different topic entirely. “There was a curator from the Hirshhorn Museum that was there to talk about the work of the artist Robert Irwin. That’s what I wanted to see,” Tennent says. “But then there was another speaker, Pete Marra from the National Zoo, who specialized in saving birds. I have not studied birds in my life. I don’t go birdwatching. I listened to him speak and was so enthralled by everything that he had to say. He really opened my eyes. [He brought me] to these ‘wow’ moments that the Smithsonian and its scholars are responsible for.”