Topaz Museum and Historic Site

A cursory Google of my intended route had turned up the (free) Great Basin Museum in Delta, Utah. I figured I could use a leg stretch when I arrived after driving across the state so I pulled in behind the visitor center and walked around the corner.

Before I reached my intended museum, I noticed the Topaz Museum sign. This gorgeous building, with its exterior clad shou sugi ban style, stood out in the plain western Utah town. I’m a little embarrassed but I wandered inside partially not knowing what to expect and partially expecting a rock museum.

It only took me a few minutes of wandering around the lobby to understand what this museum was about. I was confused about whether there was an entry fee and about where to go. Eventually, a woman came out and ushered me into a group with a docent that had started just minutes before me.

We watched two films before the docent ushered us into the start of the exhibits. The first was about the history of Topaz and how it fit in with the rest of the internment camps in the western United States. The second was footage actually shot in Topaz by someone who was held in the camp. An administrator had helped him acquire a camera but didn’t fully give him “permission” to film. This is one of only two home movies to be housed in the Library of Congress.

I was nervous about taking photos of all of the museum exhibits but within minutes of entering the museum I had a sad sinking feeling in my gut. I attempt to not be overtly political on this blog but it is clear that our country has elected someone who is unclear on how much internment is in conflict with true American values and that underscored how important it is that we recognize how we failed ourselves in the 1940s.

The Topaz museum is astounding. The exhibits are incredibly well designed. Housed within the museum is a residence for four people and outside the backdoor is a recreation hall moved from the site. There is furniture from the site that was constructed from found wood and photos showing how Topaz interacted with Delta once it was realized that the internees were not actually a threat to our country.

The last piece of the museum is a discussion of how the internment was handled in the courts after it happened. This didn’t feel like the end of the story to me so I decided I should head out to the actual site of the camp, just outside of town.

I only made it to the memorial before I sat down on its sunwarmed granite and cried. I hadn’t even entered the site yet. The museum had so well laid the foundation for an understanding of how the internment of Japanese-Americans fit into our history and into our present that I couldn’t help but feel the moment so acutely.

While I was in the museum, one of the docents commented how terrible it was that they were confined to such an ugly place. I couldn’t help myself when I responded, “It’s only ugly if you’re stuck.” On the very edge of the great basin, I was struck by the mountains and the sky. But to imagine being trapped in such a space was unthinkable.

I grew up near the Puyallup Fairgrounds which had been an assembly point for those of Japanese ancestry while waiting to be sent to their permanent camps further inland. In elementary school, we’d had a presentation by the author of Baseball Saved Us, Ken Mochizuki, and we learned about internment camps and how important baseball had been.

Standing behind what had been the backstop of one of the baseball fields, I finally started to feel some peace. I’m not sure if its the idea of baseball being “America’s game” or if its just that my long association with the game makes me feel closer to people or what. I sat on the hard dirt and looked out to the northeast, just like ball fields are supposed to, for a bit and collected myself to move on.

 

While my visit to Topaz wasn’t expected and it certainly wasn’t easy, I really recommend a stop. The museum is located in Delta, Utah right on the main highway and the camp is a relatively short drive outside of town. 

3 thoughts on “Topaz Museum and Historic Site”

  1. I love that you stopped there—it’s on my list to see. I’ve been to half of the 10 internment camps so far, with plans to hit the two in Arkansas in June. I guess I’ve committed to seeing them all at this point. Next time you’re in the eastern Sierra, be sure to visit Manzanar National Historic Site. I’ve been to a lot of national park visitor centers, and that one is right near the top in terms of its emotional impact, IMO.

    There’s actually an internment camp—officially, the Gila Rivers War Relocation Center, which was comprised of the Butte Camp and Canal Camp internment centers—less than 20 miles from my bed here in Phoenix. It was the only one that Eleanor Roosevelt, an outspoken critic of his husband’s internment policy, visited during the war. There’s not much left there besides foundations and artifacts, but it’s both a fascinating and shameful story that I’ve been collecting historical documents on for the last year. I’ll be writing about it in the coming months.

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