Mounting "Gold Mountain": Examining the Exhibitions of Chinese American Museums

By Louie, Marisa | Chinese America: History and Perspectives, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview

Mounting "Gold Mountain": Examining the Exhibitions of Chinese American Museums


Louie, Marisa, Chinese America: History and Perspectives


In the second reign year of Haamfung [1852], a trip to Gold Mountain was made. With a pillow on my shoulder, I began my perilous journey Sailing a boat with bamboo poles across the seas Leaving behind wife and sisters in search of money.

--A Gold Mountain rhyme from Toishan quoted in "Xinning zazhi" (1949), excerpted from "The Chinese of America" exhibit, Chinese Historical Society of America (1)

INTRODUCTION

Chinese American museums have played an important role in documenting the experiences of Chinese Americans in Gum San (the United States), or "Gold Mountain." Most popular historical narratives of Chinese America emerge from the imagery of the fabled "Gold Mountain" stories of nineteenth-century Chinese bachelors arriving in California to pan for gold and to build the railroads. However, Chinese American history has always been and continues to be much more complex than black-and-white accounts of immigration and exploitation.

Museums in the Chinese American community have recorded and shared the intricacies of the Chinese American experience for over four decades. By reviving historical consciousness in the community, museums allow disparate and fragmented groups to view themselves collectively, creating a stronger sense of community and laying the groundwork for social and political solidarity The presence and endurance of these museums reflects the ongoing need for Chinese American stories to be told and heard by successive generations.

Located in major Chinatowns (or former Chinatowns) across the United States, Chinese American museums and the stories that they present are a sharp contrast to the perceived exoticism of Chinatown and to images from popular culture. These museums give Chinese Americans an identity and a legitimacy more complex than the simple "Gold Rush and Railroads" narrative in history textbooks. They counteract the "forever foreigner" myth by showing how American history as a whole is inextricably interwoven with and composed of Chinese Americans; they introduce Chinatown through the lens of those who are born and live within its boundaries. (2)

At the same time, these community museums need to be subject to the same critique as other museums. Although their narratives are written from a Chinese American perspective, they do not exist outside of tensions and conflicts within the increasingly diverse community. Chinese American history spans generations and hemispheres and economic classes. The histories presented within the museums have been written from specific perspectives within that range, influencing exhibit themes and goals. These goals, in turn, affect how exhibit curators will approach exhibit development. For instance, curators might select exhibition practices according to the source of their material and their targeted audiences. The different historical priorities and goals of each museum's team of curators create differences in museumship.

Nevertheless, the museums face a common set of challenges because of their identity as cultural and historical institutions of Chinese America. Regardless of what means the curators have chosen to develop their exhibits, the American public may see these museums as essentially the same and will treat them this way. These challenges reflect larger problems endemic in the Chinese American community; museums, however, can also propose and work toward solutions to these problems through their roles as community institutions. By examining their exhibits' successes and shortcomings and relating these results to the larger problems, these museums can begin to share how to make their work even more effective and far reaching.

Given that these museums are now publicly seen as preeminent historical organizations, it is useful to examine how they exhibit history and what stones they tell. What goals do these museums set for themselves, and how do they fulfill them? How do these museums affect and function in the Chinese American community? …

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