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MOHAI Curator’s Fellowship – Polly Yorioka

For this installment, Museology Communications and Marketing Assistant Marcela Velandia (’25) spoke with Polly Yorioka (’24) about her position as MOHAI’s third annual Curator’s Fellow.


Polly Yorioka

1. Tell me more about yourself.

My name is Polly Yorioka and I grew up in the Seattle area. My dad’s side of the family are Japanese American and have lived here since the 1900s. My background is in classics. I studied classical Greece and ancient Rome, but then I got more interested in current social issues in the community and have been working for a church and working with international students. I wasn’t sure how to engage a career in history in a way other than the academy or teaching, being a professor.

However, during the pandemic, I started to think about museums and realized that this would be an amazing space, it could be a way of helping people learn about history and art. I got really excited about the idea of museums. It was honestly something I never thought about as an option. I never thought this could be a career or a place where my interests would intersect. I realized that could be a possibility and I found the Museology program at UW.

2. Why did you decide to apply for the Curator fellowship?

I saw the advertisement for the fellowship through the emails from the department. I thought that it sounded like a really amazing opportunity to do a research project on something that I’m interested in and get more practical experience in the field.

3. What is the topic and where did the ideas/inspiration come from?

I started looking through the list of some of the objects they were suggesting that people could research on the MOHAI website. I was going down the list and the last thing that they had on the list was about the set of dolls from the Japanese Girls and Boys’ Day that were donated to a local elementary school called Bailey Gatzert Elementary, the elementary school that pretty much all of the Japanese Americans would have gone to pre-World War II. My family went there.

I saw that these dolls had been donated to the school, to the principal, named Ada Mahon.
During World War II, the Japanese were sent to camps very quickly. Many of them had to leave behind anything that wasn’t critical. As you can imagine, a collection of dolls would not be something you would bring in the two suitcases allowed to go into the camp, so this story was particularly interesting to me.

I am interested to research where these came from and learn more about their history because, growing up, whenever anyone asked my grandmother about her experience during the war, what was hardest about it, she would say, “I’m just so sad that I lost my dolls.” She was a college-aged when the war began. She wasn’t a child. But she loved those dolls. We have no idea what happened to her dolls. She was always really sad because she couldn’t pass them down to me.

So, when I saw that these dolls had been left to the school, it’s like this question mark:  what’s the story surrounding it? I felt really moved by it. And I would love to learn more about this part of history because I didn’t have them growing up. These dolls were symbolic of what was lost at this time. I would love to learn more about this and share my family’s story and hear other people’s stories. Out of this particular interest in a particular set of objects, that’s what guided my application process.

4. How was the selection process?

You have the opportunity to submit the application via the website, but then, the second round was a Zoom interview. Before doing the interview, I talked to Linda Lee, the previous guest curator who did it last year. I feel a lot more confident coming into the interview. It was really helpful to get the insight from–someone with experience and was from the same UW Museology program.

For my own sake I had made a PowerPoint to show the themes that I wanted to research. I used this during the interview, as well, to highlight how I would go about my research process. I think it was helpful in the interview to have something visual to demonstrate how you’re able to handle an independent project. That’s one great thing about our program: because of the thesis and final projects, we can show we’ve completed major projects. I think it’ll make us more competitive to show that we don’t need extensive counseling or guidance to be able to get things done.

5. What are you expecting to find in the archives?

I had my first visit to their archives which are located in the Stadium District. They had photos of all of the–dolls in their online database, but they pulled some of the physical dolls for me to look at in person. They gave helpful feedback about a variety of strategies for starting my inquiry.

They let me look through their physical file on the dolls. I was really excited because I thought one of the key things that would be really neat to explore was to see if there would be any trace of whose dolls these were. They were donated to the school at the time of the War, but they were donated to the museum in the 1970s.

I was really looking for evidence of who originally owned these dolls and tucked into the file there was one little sticky note on there. There had been a family name on one of the boxes and the MOHAI had actually reached out to that family to see if anyone could identify these dolls. The note said that the family looked at the dolls and thought some of them looked familiar, but they couldn’t identify any of them positively. It had been at least 60 years. There’s a limited number of families with that family name in the area, so I’m going to be trying to track a little bit more of where these dolls came from.

6. What are the outcomes of your research? What are the themes or directions of this project?

This is interesting. It’s a curatorial fellowship, but it doesn’t necessarily end in a physical exhibit. The main outcome is a public talk in October. I will give a lecture about what I found. It is possible to bring out some of the dolls and we are discussing how to do that.  I think there will be some objects on display, but it’s really more about a public presentation of the research and then contributing to what is being documented in the archives.

You asked what directions or what themes. That’s still a little hard because there’s so many directions this project could take, right? Like I mentioned before, there’s something powerful about the stories that are missing. I could approach these objects from the lens of the story of what people lost along the way, which is very relevant to current days situations, such as people today around the world who are relocating to refugee camps. So many ethnic groups in the United States have missing objects and histories.

Another approach that I could take is thinking about, historically, what these dolls meant for these immigrant families. One thing that’s kind of interesting about the physical dolls when I was looking at them was that they all have these big MADE IN JAPAN stickers and to me it’s like smack on the front of them.  Normally if you buy something that has some sticker, you would remove it, especially if it’s on the front. It’s not in a good place. But I think that there might have been a sense of pride: this is from Japan. Maybe that’s why they didn’t remove the stickers. That’s just me conjecturing there’s the symbolic ties to the homeland.

I’m also interested to think about childhood for Japanese American kids, what was their  childhood like. Before the war, there was a kind of blend of Japanese culture, while also trying to be patriotic, loyal Americans. There’s a lot of interesting photographs at the MOHAI archives that show Bailey Gatzert Elementary School and there’s a lot of pictures of kids and patriotic flags. There was a Densho video I watched of a Japanese American man, who had gone to Bailey Gatzert when he was a child, and he was sharing how they really were trying to instill this patriotism- particularly the principal, the one to whom the dolls were given. I think there’s some really interesting things about the lens of patriotism and nationalism.

In my ideal world, if I could connect at all to the family that is tied to these dolls, if I could talk with them, anybody who’s still living, that would be really interesting. I also want to talk to other people from the community and plan on looking to see what’s already been recorded. I hope to connect with the Japanese American community and hear other people’s stories.

I just started to ask on Facebook: does anyone have stories of these dolls, either here in Seattle or in other places? Because I am curious what kinds of things were told to people and passed down. That definitely is an avenue that I’m hoping to go on because I would love to hear stories from the perspective of the generation of children who were incarcerated, but I think a lot of those will have to be things that were already reported because that generation is getting a lot older and many have passed away.

It’s a hard thing we often don’t realize until too late that we really should have documented this history. I wish we had more of it. When I was in middle school, I recorded my grandmother and asked her all these questions about her experience in the camps and those things, but that was before things were saved on the computer. I don’t think it even exists anymore.

I think also particularly because of what happened with Japanese community, so many people didn’t talk about anything that had happened for a long time. They were very hesitant to speak. My grandma, she would make comments about, like, “oh, at camp it was really dusty.” She also referred to it kind of like it was summer camp, the way she would talk about it. She wouldn’t really share a lot of details and a lot of the pain. I think it’s interesting in the 1970s it was like late enough and because of the civil rights movements how a lot of Japanese Americans from that generation started sharing more. Even then there wasn’t that much dialogue, but it does seem that from the 70s there’s a lot more information. But at that point, it gets really far removed, so it’s people’s memories; it changes over time.

I’m so glad to be able to do this project. It’s more of a passion project for me to connect to my roots, my identity, and my story–and hopefully to find a little bit of healing, maybe not just for myself, but for others too, who have had similar experiences.