Saturday, May 11, 2013
I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story
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!