Thursday, October 01, 2009

Latest ASIAN POP column for the SF Chronicle: "The Living Museum," on the importance of community museums

For nearly three decades, the institution now known as the Museum of Chinese in America was housed in a cramped and awkward space on the second floor of a former schoolhouse at the corner of Mulberry and Bayard on the back end of Chinatown. Dark, anonymous and inaccessible to the handicapped and elderly, the space was ill-equipped to offer the visibility and traffic flow demanded by an exhibition-oriented institution. But despite these challenges -- despite being limited for years to a single-room gallery small enough for a hand-holding couple to bridge from wall to wall -- MoCA has long been one of the most vibrant and ambitious arts organizations in New York's Asian American community, constantly pushing the envelope of what was possible given its meager resources; indeed, it has repeatedly proven itself, as the New York Times wrote back in 1996, to be the "little museum that could," emulating the redoubtable strivers whose stories their collection and programming have so richly documented

Well, if there's any lesson our immigrant forebears have imparted to succeeding generations (I certainly had it drummed into me!), it's that if you push hard enough at the envelope, it eventually bursts -- something quite in evidence last week as MoCA finally unveiled its gorgeous new $8.1 million quarters on the transitional frontier between proletarian Chinatown and posh SoHo, designed by architectural wunderkind Maya Lin (of Vietnam War Memorial fame).

The staff are ecstatic; the visitors have been arriving in crowds. The community has risen up in excited support. But one voice of critique has stepped forward, although he's done so in his customary "wonderful, but..." form. That critic is New York Times museums correspondent Ed Rothstein, a very smart man who's never met an ethnic-specific museum that didn't make his teeth grit. His issue isn't with the execution, but the concept: The notion of presenting the "hyphenated-American experience" (yes, he quite embarrassingly uses the problematic term "hyphenated American") in a way that emphasizes historical discrimination simply gets his goat. "The first-person stories here suggest that the dominant identity model has its own form of exaggeration, heightening trauma and minimizing promise," he writes. (Because we should be happy! Look, we have a museum and everything!)

The hilarious-if-it-weren't-so-sad thing is that Rothstein has used the same language and argument to criticize the wonderful Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle, the Arab American National Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., even preemptively against D.C.'s in-development National Museum of African American History and Culture, opening in 2015. 

And he's not the only one who voices this argument — you see and hear it every day these days, from establishment voices who fear the rise of pluralism and alternatives to our dominant straight-white-male social narrative. You see and hear it even more frighteningly from the populist fringe, as they attack immigrants and people of color and LGBTs and, of course, the President

Click this link to read the full column. There's some fantastic work being done out there as far as reshaping the way we preserve and tell history and frame the present, and these museums are becoming hugely influential in that process.

Posted via email from OriginalSpin


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