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Fort Missoula to create immersive display of WWII detention era

Between 1941 and 1944, the camp held around 1,200 Italian men, 1,000 Japanese and a handful of Germans
Fort Missoula WWII Camp
Posted at 9:08 AM, Feb 02, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-02 11:08:30-05

MISSOULA — The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula plans to begin renovations on a detention barrack and begin designing an immersive exhibit to fill the space next year.

Missoula County on Thursday approved a $79,000 contract between the museum and Historical Research Associates to begin the work. Funding for the project is paid for through a grant and private donations.

Matt Lautenheiser, the museum's executive director, said Fort Missoula acquired the barrack from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in 2017.

The museum plans to restore the building over the course of this year.

However, he said, the restoration project doesn't include an exhibit — at least not yet.

“The idea we have is to create an immersive exhibit,” said Lautenheiser. “We currently have a gallery-style exhibit in our existing barrack building. This will be right next to it. The idea is to create a space where people can understand what the conditions were like for the detainees during WWII.”

Fort Missoula was established as a military post in 1877 to protect European settlers from local Indian tribes.

But during World War II, the fort was used as an alien detention center.

Between 1941 and 1944, the camp held around 1,200 Italian men, 1,000 Japanese and a handful of Germans. The museum looks to display the camp's history of holding foreign nationals and resident aliens over the course of the war.

While it's not yet known what the exhibit will display, Lautenheiser said the museum has already secured a $50,000 grant from the Museum of Library Services and raised another $29,000 privately.

It plans to work with Historical Research Associates to research, design and install the immersive display in the new barrack building once renovations are complete.

“There's an element of procurement, whether it would be replica pieces for this or actual antique pieces used to create the immersive exhibit,” said Lautenheiser. “Installment would take place in the spring of next year once the building is done.”

Fort Missoula is currently the largest intact WWII internment site with most of its major buildings still in use.

That includes the Post Headquarters, the old hospital, the commissary, officer and staff housing, barracks and other support structures.

Missoula County commissioners supported the museum's plans for the immersive display in approving the contract on Thursday.

“I can't wait to see this,” said Commission Josh Slotnick. “This is of real national importance.”