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  • Ettienne LeFebre

Manzanar War Relocation Camp: Oral Histories In Situ

This post is part of a series of case studies investigating innovation in historic site interpretation. The case studies explore new technologies, advanced approaches to storytelling, community engagement, and multi-sensory experiential learning. Research and writing for the series was completed by Ettienne LeFebre during her 2023 summer internship with Groundwork, with contributions and oversight by Gretchen Hilyard Boyce.


The Manzanar National Historic Site is a National Historic Landmark in Inyo County, California. The site was the location of the Manzanar War Relocation Center, an internment camp that held 10,000 Japanese Americans prisoner during World War II from 1942 to 1945. The site is managed by the National Park Service (NPS) to preserve the history of the internment of Japanese Americans, as well as the history of the indigenous people who occupied the land prior to colonization, and the farming history of the Owens Valley. Despite the rich history at Manzanar, the NPS has reported a lack of visitor engagement with the majority of the site, as few of the original buildings and structures from the internment camp remain. The minimal number of physical structures drives many visitors to only explore the visitor center and a small portion of the site and interpretive materials.


Milwaukee’s NPR, Manzanar National Historic Site, https://www.wuwm.com/2021-05-13/manzanar-diverted-documentary-untangles-the-complex-history-of-californias-payahuunadu-valley.

The One Square Mile, 10,000 Voices project, created in 2019 by documentary filmmaker Sue Ding and sound artist Halsey Burgund, seeks to increase visitor engagement at Manzanar by providing a site-specific augmented reality experience that links contemporary visitors with the voices and stories of the people who were interred at the site. The One Square Mile project is available to Manzanar visitors through a mobile app, and allows visitors at Manzanar to hear oral histories associated with different buildings and landscapes on the site. The oral histories are drawn from over 650 oral histories that the NPS has conducted with former internees, and also includes more contemporary accounts recorded by Ding and Burgund with indigenous elders, farmers, and former Japanese internees and their descents. The One Square Mile app brings oral histories out of the archives, where they often remain hidden from the public, and allows former internees to tell their stories across time. Additionally, the app includes a crowdsourcing function where users are able to record their own recollections, select a location on the site to attach them to, and submit them for review. The ability of people to submit their own oral histories directly to the app encourages and increases the number of first-hand accounts preserved from this important event in American history.


One Square Mile, 10,000 Voices Mobile App, mobile app screen with oral history locations geo-located, accessed July 12, 2023.


The app’s audio experience offers a rich sensory way of showcasing oral histories at a site while tying them to a specific place. For example, as a visitor walks through the gates of Manzanar they hear narratives from Japanese internees about their first impressions of the camp upon arrival or news reports from the time period. At the Judo Dojo visitors can hear recollections of how this extracurricular activity brought internees together and fostered community. The oral history recordings are triggered by the visitor moving throughout the site, which encourages the visitor to “explore”. This offers more of a participatory audio interpretive experience than a static audio exhibit in a visitor center or building. Additionally, the audio experience is not time specific to just the internment period of Manzanar’s history, and also includes indigenous oral histories and farming oral histories to enhance the visitors' understanding of the layered history held within the physical landscape.


One Square Mile, 10,000 Voices web browser, web browser page with oral history locations highlighted in pink, https://onesquaremile.fm/.

The One Square Mile app can also be used by visitors in the Little Tokyo neighborhood in Los Angeles, a historically Japanese-American community that serves as the symbolic center of the community in Los Angeles today. Although Little Tokyo is hundreds of miles from Manzanar, it is intimately connected to the story of the internment camp as many of the internees came from the neighborhood. Many of the oral histories reference specific sites within Little Tokyo and provide context for life both before and after Manzanar. The ability to utilize the app in a populated urban environment increases the number of people who hear the oral histories of Japanese Americans while also raising awareness about the injustices they faced at Manzanar and beyond. Like Manzanar, the Little Tokyo experience aids the visitor in visualizing the historic fabric of the community, as the physical features of both sites have been altered in significant ways. The One Square Mile app offers an interactive way to communicate these forgotten histories to visitors as a way to keep these stories alive for future generations.


The One Square Mile app continues to evolve towards its mission to create a fully immersive audio experience. In 2020 Halsey Burgund stated that one of the future goals of the project was to tie the oral histories to specific places in a way in which the audio would sound as if it were coming from a particular direction as the visitor walked by, which would encourage the visitor to walk towards a specific area or object. This innovation would immerse the visitor deeper into the interpretive experience, as well as increase the site-specific nature of the oral histories. Both at rural Manzanar and urban Little Tokyo, a more immersive experience can shed light on histories no longer visible in the physical landscape, an interpretive hardship many marginalized communities face.


In many different capacities the One Square Mile app brings oral histories out of the archives and into the headphones of site guests. While the goal of the One Square Mile app is ultimately to encourage visitors at Manzanar to explore the site and expose them to oral histories, the ability to also access the oral histories on the app’s website via an interactive map supports the goal of spreading this important history to as broad an audience as possible. As the generations of Japanese Americans who were interned continue to pass away, the ability to hear their experiences at Manzanar in their own words becomes more important than ever. The One Square Mile app ensures that they will be heard and preserved, and also encourages the visitor to imagine their experiences on the physical landscape before them. Overall, the One Square Mile, 10,000 Voices app is an excellent example of bringing oral histories to life through innovation in augmented-reality that immerses visitors into the personal histories of a community.


About the Author

Ettienne LeFebre is currently completing her Master’s degree in Public History at Sacramento State University, with a focus in historic preservation and cultural resources management. Her research centers around the diversification of historic resources, increasing public interest and engagement at historic sites, and the preservation of intangible heritage. She specializes in California and Southwestern U.S. history, and aims to preserve historic resources related to the complex and diverse histories of these regions for the benefit of contemporary communities. In her free time she enjoys hiking along the American River, reading, creative writing, and exploring Sacramento’s incredible food scene.


References


Burgund, Halsey and Sue Ding. “One Square Mile, 10,000 Voices.” One Square Mile. Accessed July 12, 2023. https://onesquaremile.fm/.


—. “One Square Mile, 10,000 Voices Mobile App.” One Square Mile. Accessed July 12, 2023.


—. “One Square Mile, 10,000 Voices: Using Augmented Reality to Enrich Historic Site Interpretation.” Project presented virtually at the California Preservation Foundation, May 13, 2020. https://californiapreservation.org/events/10000voices/.


Ding, Sue. “One Square Mile, 10,000 Voices.” Sue Ding. Accessed July 12, 2023. http://www.sue-ding.com/portfolio/one-square-mile-10000-voices/.


Manzanar National Historic Site. “Stories: Manzanar Oral History Program.” National Park Service. Last modified August 8, 2022. https://www.nps.gov/manz/learn/historyculture/stories.htm.


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