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Law professor instrumental in new
Heart Mountain museum

The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II has fascinated law professor Eric Muller for more than 20 years.

His interest began when he was teaching constitutional law at the University of Wyoming.

Muller

The students in his class, most of them Wyoming natives, had no idea that one of the largest of the internment camps was in their state, at a place called Heart Mountain. Nearly 14,000 Japanese-American men, women and children were confined there during the war.

On Aug. 20, the new Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center will have a grand opening, with some 1,000 people expected to attend, including more than 100 former internees. Muller, Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor in Jurisprudence and Ethics and associate dean for faculty development, also will be there.

For the past two years, Muller has devoted much of his time to overseeing the content and design of the exhibits as an expert on the topic and as a member of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation Board of Directors.

The 11,000-square-foot learning center tells the story of the Heart Mountain camp from the perspective of its prisoners. Life-size standup photos of the prisoners populate the exhibit space.

For visitors, the experience is not just intellectual, but also emotional, Muller said. “Visitors will be struck and touched by the lives and challenges of this scapegoated community,” he said.

The name of the Mineta/Simpson Friendship Hall, a theater-multipurpose area in the new museum, gives a clue to one of the most enduring stories from Heart Mountain.

Two Boy Scouts living on opposite sides of the barbed wire fence met at a Jamboree held there and became lifelong friends despite the physical barrier. They are former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta, former internee and a Democrat, and retired U.S. Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, a Republican. Both are expected to attend the museum’s grand opening.

What Muller calls the “very American story” of the Japanese American camps has been the principal focus of his research activities since his arrival at Carolina in 1998. He has written two books on topics related to the internment camps: “Free to Die for Their Country: The Story of the Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II” and “American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II.”

Like the learning center experience, Muller’s interest is part intellectual and part emotional. The fact that the U.S. government was able to imprison whole families of U.S. citizens for no reason other than their racial heritage was a failure in our legal system, he said, and continues to be relevant today whenever other groups become scapegoats.

But Muller also realized that the story resonated for him personally because his grandfather was imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald.

“What happened to Japanese Americans was not genocide or slave labor,” he said, “but it was nonetheless an American-style racial incarceration.”

For additional information about the center, refer to www.heartmountain.org. The following video is an excerpt from a museum film:

 

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August 10, 2011

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