By Zachariah Bryan
Northwest Asian Weekly
Museums are essential to telling the Asian American story, said Konrad Ng, director of the Asian Pacific American Center at the Smithsonian.
“Your being here is history. Your being here should be documented, should be recorded,” he told an attentive audience at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience during his Seattle visit last weekend with his wife, educator and writer Maya Soetoro-Ng, who is also President Barack Obama’s half-sister.
Ng said The Wing, which is an affiliate of the Smithsonian, is an important part of Seattle’s Asian American community in that it helps tell stories and create conversation.
Ng, who is Chinese American, used the Pew Research Center study, “Rise of the Asian Americans,” as an example.
While it had some interesting findings, he said, it also had its flaws. For example, it only used data going back to 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act was passed, creating a new wave of Asian immigrants.
“If our premise is that Asian Americans have been here since 1965, our work is not done,” he said, remarking that Asians have been in America long before 1965. “Can you say that to the Filipino Americans who worked in the canneries? Can you say that to the Japanese Americans [who were imprisoned] here [in Washington]? Can you say that to the Chinese Americans who worked on the railroad? Can you say that to the Vietnamese Americans who have had such a different immigration experience? Can you say that to the Indian Americans who have lobbied so hard for citizenship rights?”
“The Asian American experience is in part defined by struggle,” Ng said.
Ng said that while on a tour of the museum on April 20, he was able to talk about the various exhibits with ease because he was an Asian American well informed about his history. But, he continued, he could not help but wonder what it would be like to not know anything, and how important it is to tell the Asian American story to those people who don’t know the complex history.
Referring to the American education system, which often skims over learning about Asian cultures, Soetoro-Ng had a similar sentiment.
“It is enough to talk about the kimono and sushi and suddenly we know everything we need to know about being Japanese, about being Asian … We have so many layers of identity,” she said.
Soetoro-Ng, who is half Indonesian, warned that the work of museums should not be conflated with just recording history.
“I am saddened by the way our museums show a particular culture, a particular ethnicity as already written. You have all this experience in working plans that don’t breathe life, that are sort of mausoleums to the past,” she said.
“Now, the Wing Luke is different.”
She said it is important for museums to continue the discussion and continue shaping the Asian American identity.
Likewise, Ng said that museums should be a centerpiece of community, a place that encourages conversation.
“We don’t want the community to create a wall around themselves. We want the museum to become the center of the community, to tell the story of lives — American lives. That is why it’s so important that you continue to do what you do,” Ng said.
The Wing currently features several exhibits that not only feature the old, but also the contemporary. Exhibits include “The Sikh Community: Over 100 Year in the Pacific Northwest,” which tells the history of a community that is often overlooked; “Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani,” which explores the life and struggles of Japanese American artist Mirikitani, who passed away at age 92 in 2012; and “Yellow Terror: The Collections and Paintings of Roger Shimomura,” which explores racial stereotypes of Asians in art.
Soetoro-Ng used the Indonesian word “cuci mata,” which means “to wash the eyes,” to describe the role museums can play in shaping the identity of Asian Americans.
“I think we can think of washing our eyes in terms of rethinking our identity,” she said, warning against becoming synonymous with old, stale stereotypes. “I think these exhibits are important for that.” (end)
Zachiriah Bryan can be reached at email@example.com.