Sokendai Review of Cultural and Social Studies


vol.15 (2019)

Ethnography of Docent Tours:

A Case Study of the “Museum as a Forum” at the
Japanese American Museum of San Jose


Department of Regional Studies
School of Cultural and Social Studies
SOKENDAI (The Graduate University for Advanced Studies)

Key words:

Japanese American, museum, Museum as a forum, docent, Docent Tour, narrative, share

The Japanese American Museum of San Jose (JAMsj) in Japantown, San Jose, California, United States, is a museum that presents the history of local Japanese Americans. This paper discusses the “Museum as a forum” at JAMsj by focusing on Docent Tours, which are planned and conducted by docents. The idea of the “Museum as a forum”, which was proposed by Duncan Cameron in 1971, presents a new concept of museums. This idea eventually became featured both in research and practice as a guideline for museums in the latter half of 1980s, when traditional type of museums came to be critically reexamined. However, there is little literature that gives concrete examples of the idea of the “Museum as a forum”. This paper seeks to present detailed examples to analyze and provide a different perspective from the existing framework.

The Japanese American Museum of San Jose, which is relatively small in size, is a museum that shows the local history of Japanese American in San Jose by themselves. Generally, the Docent Tours provides an explanation of the exhibited objects and there are no standardized manuals, and therefore the explanations differ depending on the docent and visitors. This paper explores how docents construct and conduct their own tours inside the museum. The author categorized docents in to two types: Nisei and Sansei docents who have personal memories and experiences from before or during World War II and other generation Japanese Americans and non-Japanese American docents who do not. Those who have memories of life in the Japantown and of incarceration to camps during WW2 often use their own memories when they explain the objects. In case of guiding visitors who have such memories and experiences, the docent tours serve as a place where both docents and visitors can share their memories and experiences each other. On the other hand, younger generation Japanese Americans or non-Japanese American docents collect stories from older docents or visitors who have such memories and experiences through the Docent Tour and sort them for use when conducting other tours. Stories collected from older docents or visitors do not necessarily match with the stories represented by the objects, which leads to a variety of perspectives to be shared by both docents and visitors. Visitors and docents alike develop new awareness. It can be concluded that that JAMsj can serve as a museum with interactivity and a “Museum as a forum” with interactivity and multiple voices.