Saturday, May 11, 2013

I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story

Where: American History Museum

When: through June 15, 2013

Getting to the third floor of the American History Museum is no longer so easy as it once was.  Since they're renovating half the floor, the escalator is closed.  I ended up finding a back stairway and walking up, but look for the elevators which will also get you there.  Add to the wandering around I did just to get to the exhibit, the huge crowds that were there when I went yesterday, and it took much longer to actually get to the show than to see it.

This is what's called a "banner exhibit."  When I saw this description, I wasn't sure if they meant it was memorable or on banners.  Turns out they mean banner in the literal sense; it's a series of 6 or 8 banners hung in a hallway on the third floor.

This trip made me think once again what an ugly and inconvenient museum American History is.  Don't misunderstand me, I love the exhibits and have learned an enormous amount by visiting, but it doesn't seem to matter how they fix the place up, it's still awful.  The nicest part is the space with the Star Spangled Banner.  The rest of it?  It just seems as if they've shoved the exhibits in the building however they'll squeeze in, leaving the visitor to wander around empty hallways and overcrowded shows.

Ah well, enough of my grousing!  On to the show.  The banners depict the story of Asian Pacific American immigration to the United States, which started before there was a United States.  If you think the first arrivals from the west were the boat people pictured above (800,000 people arrived in the US this way; more than that number died trying to get here), you're missing hundreds of years of journeys.  As early as 1565, the Spanish in Mexico were trading with the Philippines.  Native Hawaiians worked as seamen and laborers from Peru to the Aleutian Islands.  In the 1800s, the Chinese were told that treasure was being plucked from the ground, and many of them came to pluck their own treasure.  Turns out the streets were not paved with gold, but the Chinese stayed and took far less lucrative jobs.  Asian Pacific Americans fought in the Civil War (yet again, a Civil War reference), and Chinese laborers made up 80% of the Central Pacific Railroad workforce.

In Hawaii, plantation owners brought laborers from other parts of Asia to the islands to work the fields; when Hawaii joined the Union, it was the first and only state to have a predominantly Asian/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander population.  The terrible discrimination against Asian immigrants led to a migration eastward, and significant numbers of people of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage throughout the country.  Asian food, for instance, has transformed American cuisine (I was reminded of the display case with the Chinese food signs).  Many people of Asian descent are of mixed race - a harbinger of the greater diversity in American society generally.

Verdict: A nice little exhibit, but be prepared for a trek to get there!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Experience Civil War Photography: From the Home Front to the Battlefront

Where: Smithsonian Castle

When: closing in July 213; no exact date set

I've often heard it said that Vietnam was the first televised war, that the war was brought into people's living rooms through television.  A similar phenomenon occurred during the Civil War: it was the first photographed war.  Photography brought the war and its horrors into people's parlors, both through family photographs taken of soldiers before they went to the front and through photographs taken of the war itself and the major actors in it.

3D photographs, called stereoviews, were very popular (just shows, everything old is new again eventually) - they reminded me of the Viewmaster Viewer I had as a child, which is not surprising, since it's the same technology.  Of course, while I was looking at scenes from fairy tales or cartoon characters, these stereoviews were of battlefields and generals.

The wet plate collodion process (familiar to me from my visit to the National Portrait Gallery's ambrotypes exhibit) allowed for reproduction of photographs, which broadened both their appeal and their audience.  Matthew Brady's photograph, "Dead of Antietam" was seen by many people, and it brought home the human cost of war in ways that no newspaper account could do.  I'm pretty sure this was part of the American Art Museum's "Civil War and American Art" show I saw a while ago.  I must say, if you're interested in the Civil War, there's a wealth of exhibits for you to see.  Truly, you're spoiled for choice.

The Smithsonian itself played a role in the Civil War.  The Castle was greatly damaged by fire (which I gather was not the result of the War, but did occur at this time), and suffered a loss of valuable objects.  Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, and his family actually lived in the Castle, in an eight-room apartment.  What a fantastic place to live!  I really wish the upper floors weren't closed to the public; I would love to look around and see the view from the top spire.

For the Henry family, it wasn't all about the lovely views; they took delivery of muskets and ammunition to defend the Institution (which was entirely contained in the Castle at that time).  Military recon was conducted on the roof of the Castle.  As I know from the Library of Congress exhibit on the Civil War, Washington was a hotbed of Southern sympathizers, so I can only imagine that life must have been a nervous business for the Castle's inhabitants.

Verdict: A small show, easily managed in an hour.  In fact, if you've not had a look at the cases with samples of items from each of the Smithsonian museums in the Commons, you can do both on the same trip.