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Japanese Studies Spotlight: A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words: Connecting Through Canon in Post-Occupation Japan at the Prange Collection

by Paula Curtis on 2024-01-17T10:19:00-05:00 | 0 Comments

The NCC is collaborating with institutions and scholars to release a monthly series on our blog entitled Japanese Studies Spotlight. These features showcase exciting online collections available to researchers and students in Japanese Studies, introducing the archive or project, describing their contents, and demonstrating how they can be usefully engaged in research or in the classroom. If you are interested in submitting something to the series, please contact Paula R. Curtis, NCC’s Digital Media Manager, at

Karen Adjei, MLIS Graduate Student, University of Maryland, College Park

The Prange Collection is one of the most comprehensive archives of Japanese print publications issued during the Occupation of Japan (1945-1952) in the world. Housed as part of the Postwar Japan Collection at the University of Maryland, College Park, these materials focus on the years 1945 to 1949 and contain censorship markings from that time period. These Japanese print publications are also supplemented by a robust oral history collection of Americans who served in Allied Occupied Japan. This spotlight shares these versatile resources through the introduction of a recent gift donation that is the first of its kind at the Prange Collection. These materials, provided by the descendants of George Peter Demeroukas (1930-2012), a drafted American serviceman during the immediate Post-Occupation, became the foundation of an exhibition that highlights the importance of bridging the gap between exhibitions curation and academic librarianship and promoting storytelling to reach diverse audiences and patrons.


George P. Demeroukas and the Collection

George Peter Demeroukas (1930-2012) was a second-generation Greek immigrant from Chicago, Illinois. He was drafted into the military at the onset of the Cold War and after the Occupation of Japan. He was later stationed with the Japan Signal Battalion of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. to work on military radio broadcast and telecommunication stations, serving in Japan from February 1955 to March 1956. While there, Demeroukas collected numerous memorabilia, wrote letters to his family, took black and white photographs, and produced color slides to document his personal travels throughout Japan. After leaving active duty, he received two medals (National Defense Services and Sharpshooter (Carbine)) and later worked as a technical illustrator drafting radio and television schematic diagrams.

Figure 1. Photograph of George P. Demeroukas in Japan

The George Peter Demeroukas Papers were assembled and preserved by Demeroukas's wife, Katharine J.S. Demeroukas, after his death in 2012. In 2022, the collection was donated to the University of Maryland Libraries by Marie Demeroukas and Christopher P. Demeroukas, the daughter and son of George P. and Katharine J.S. Demeroukas, and they donated additional materials in 2023. The papers, photographs, and ephemera donated by Demeroukas’s descendants broaden the Prange Collection’s holdings into the Cold War era, highlights Japan’s changing relationship with the United States after the Occupation, reveals Japan’s development through the story of one serviceman, and illustrates the United States’ expansion of its military presence throughout the Pacific Rim in the postwar period. From an archival and technological perspective, it also showcases the lay photographic history of the 1950s through the use of Kodachrome slides.

Although Demeroukas was stationed in Japan from 1955-1956, the materials he collected and created more broadly cover the years 1950-1955. The images include an album with 720 black and white photographs, a sleeve of 8 black and white photographs, 222 photographic slides, 3 envelopes and 7 packets of photograph negatives, and 15 film canisters of photograph negatives. These photos cover numerous sites Demeroukas visited while stationed and traveling in Japan, such as Gojohara, Gokahama, Fujishima, Fukanuma, Fukushima, Hirose River, Hiroshima, Igarashima, Kamakura, Kyoto, Matsushima Islands, Nara, Niigata, Osaka, Otsu, Sendai, Shizouoka, Tokyo, Yamagata, Yokohama, and Yokomuki. The photographs are complemented by related ephemera such as 12 brochures, pamphlets, documents, and two books, "The American Way of Housekeeping" (1950) and "Japan" (1953) by Horace Bristol. A LibGuide as well as an archival collection overview are available for researchers to become further acquainted with the gift collection before using the materials on-site.

Storytelling in Academic Spaces

As a graduate student at the University of Maryland pursuing a Master in Library and Information Science (MLIS), my degree requirements included a field study experience. With an undergraduate degree in History focusing on Asian American Studies and a great deal of experience with storytelling in museums, I was seeking ways to combine these interests within an academic library space. Working at the Prange Collection provided me with an exciting opportunity to do so. I could not only expand my research experience working with primary source archival material but could also see how an academic library can promote its holdings beyond the reference desk or individualized research projects to reach a broader audience through a more immersive experience.

The field study was structured as a condensed curatorial process, taking a four-month period to create an exhibition from start to finish. The result was A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words: Connecting Through Canon in Post-Occupation Japan. Although exhibitions are typically planned and executed by a curatorial team over months, if not years, my project was scaled down to fit what could be accomplished with the time, space, and resources available for my practicum. I spent twenty-six working days on planning and executing the exhibition, taking into consideration how limitations of scale would impact my ability to translate this knowledge of the collection to the public. In the Maryland Reading Room, where the exhibit would be showcased, there were only about five cases of varying sizes to display materials. It was therefore of the utmost importance to peruse the over one thousand materials from this collection and figure out how to select items that could be the most visually appealing as well as meaningful in conveying information in a small space. Despite the limited time for such a complex process, I was able to maximize the experience and learn a significant amount through the invaluable guidance of the Prange Curator, Kana Jenkins, and Collection Coordinator, Motoko Lezec.

Figure 2: Curator Kana Jenkins and field study intern Karen Adjei

The Kodachrome color slides became the main visual thread throughout the exhibit. Kodachrome was a popular color slide film introduced by Eastman Kodak in 1935. It was one of the most widely consumed slide films for photography after the end of WWII, and continued to be used until the introduction of digital photographic technology. With over 200 color slides included in the donation, reviewing and analyzing all of them was one of the most time-consuming aspects of curating the exhibit. Yet, carefully combing through each item helped to provide an understanding of how the history of Japan at the onset of the Cold War era had been captured through Demeroukas’s lens. Not only were the color slides visually appealing, as Demeroukas had a knack for photography since childhood, but the slides also contained personal annotations of his thoughts, his observations, and documentation of daily life in the country. This greatly helped in not only piecing together his time in Japan but also in identifying how the Japanese political, social and economic landscape was changing during the 1950s, which was one of the main themes of the exhibition.

Figure 3: Image of Kodachrome color slides on a light box with placeholders, from the George P. Demeroukas Papers

Textual evidence was also needed to tell a fuller story of the collection. Beyond the annotated slides and available secondary source research, Demeroukas had written letters home to his family, and a few of them had been preserved in the collection’s finding aid. Of particular note for this collection is that one of the donors, his daughter, worked as an archivist, so she performed tremendous work in sorting and processing the materials prior to the donation. This made it possible to focus on a diverse body of materials throughout the curation process. Furthermore, the collection stands out in that the holdings are not only in black and white but also contain colorful print materials. This, too, impacted the look and feel of the exhibition, bringing this particular moment in history to life. The combination of various colors and types of records made for a more visually balanced and captivating exhibition than I had initially expected.


Engaging Audiences

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words: Connecting Through Canon in Post-Occupation Japan will run for nine weeks (November 27, 2023 - January 26, 2024) and features five different themes: Demeroukas’s military service during the Cold War Era; Japan’s changing domestic and international image; religion; culture and agriculture; and food. The first two themes were displayed in the larger cases and helped to situate Demeroukas in the historical landscape of a changing time in Japan while simultaneously introducing audiences and patrons to the collection and exhibition topics. The last three themes were displayed in the smaller cases and highlighted the avenues through which Demeroukas made sense of his short military service, situated himself in a new culture, and formed deeper connections beyond what may have been expected outside of his work on military radio posts, all through the context of his Greek immigrant heritage.

Figure 4: Image of fifth case focused on the theme of food, as part of the exhibit A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words: Connecting Through Canon in Post-Occupation Japan

The materials in the cases included many of the color Kodachrome slides and, in turn, offered an intimate glimpse into the connection that Demeroukas had with the culture that surrounded him as well as markers of Japanese and American history. Where appropriate, Demeroukas’s letters were displayed alongside the images and documents to complement his visual perspectives. This curatorial style was executed with the intention of guiding patrons and audiences through how one might discover history in an archival collection while also reflecting how Demeroukas would have shared his time in Japan with his family through photography and the written word. Behind this curatorial style was the careful process of preservation in displaying these materials, and I received guidance in this area from the Prange Collection's Preservation Specialist Kirsten Gaffke. To help patrons take all of this in and to further reflect, we provided a feedback form that they could fill out on their experiences as they moved through and viewed the exhibition.

Though the reading room we used at the University of Maryland Libraries was not the kind of large-scale, fully immersive space one might find at a larger museum, A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words: Connecting Through Canon in Post-Occupation Japan provides an invaluable means of sharing the history of George Peter Demeroukas in Japan. Through the use of thoughtful curation and engagement with multifaceted collections, we were able to create a diverse educational opportunity for both scholars and students interested in Japanese Studies, Occupation history, material culture and ephemera, and more.

Figure 5. Karen Adjei giving a tour of the exhibit A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words: Connecting Through Canon in Post-Occupation Japan

As someone who works in curatorial and library services, I benefited immensely from the support of the Prange Collection’s representatives, who made it possible to share these fascinating histories with a larger audience through the exhibition. The ability to creatively engage in storytelling around a special collection was empowering as an emerging library professional with future goals of working in libraries and museums in Japan and also as someone able to reflect on the final product and invite members of the academic community to participate in those reflections. I hope that more academic libraries with special collections will consider how supporting curatorial projects can harmoniously promote the critical role of information services alongside outreach among scholars and students. For more information on A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words, please see the Prange website and check back there later this month for another post about the process and impact of curating the exhibit. You can contact Karen here with any questions or comments about the exhibition.

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