Identity Museum – MOCA

The Museum of Chinese in America

The Museum of Chinese in America

I recently visited the newly re-opened MOCA–Museum of Chinese in America.  Drawn partially, I’ll admit, by the museum’s architect, Maya Lin, I was also interested in seeing what, if any new design ideas on how to present this history–“Chinese in America”–an example of these unique groups building museums to tell specific cultural identity stories.  Firstly, I find the title of this museum interesting–“Museum of Chinese in America,”  not “Museum of the History of Chinese Americans” or “Museum of American Chinese,” but “Museum of Chinese in America.”  The words “Chinese in America” suggest to me a purposeful separation of “Chinese” and “America” and does not imply overlap or inclusion.  Perhaps that is part of the point, that for most of the history of Chinese immigrating to the U.S. our culture separated and labeled them as “Chinese” and not “American.” I thought that this was particularly relevant to our class conversation about the growing presence of such group and identity-specific museums.  I have to question, who is the audience?  Throughout my visit I felt as though the museum made no effort to connect this “Chinese” experience in America to any other immigrant group (other than a brief commentary on the Japanese interment during WWII).  If museums keep telling these specific stories and do not connect them out to a larger point or group, aren’t they missing part of the point of the very history they are trying to present?  Regardless, some of the objects on display in the museum, e.g. a candy box for “Fu Manchus” or a copy of “The Good Earth,” were great tools that could speak about racism without use of many words.  I wish the current section, instead of having a wall of famous Asian Americans–Maya Lin, Yo Yo Ma, Ang Lee, they might have discussed current immigration or racial issues because this story is still ongoing–just because we have museums that discuss these issues historically, does not mean they are not still alive and relevant today.


6 responses to “Identity Museum – MOCA

  1. Great post. I love it when a new museum opens. Any new museum is a major achievement and fodder for thought. I think we might re-name this post The Identity Complex. I am also very curious about the “in” in this museum’s name. It suggests that Americans of Chinese descent are still Chinese and not Chinese-Americans as would be expected. Or maybe this really is a museum about Chinese people that just happen to be in America. Is it a point of pride? Does geography shape identity? Is this about New York or more broadly about national experience? The “in” is a subtle distinction and makes you wonder.

    Over the last 20 years there has been an explosion of “Identity Museums” across the country as each subset or constituency of a very diverse American Society makes it claim of uniqueness. These museums generate all kinds of questions: Who are they for, the community they represent or the diverse public? Should other cultural constituencies and immigrants be expected to relate to these very specific stories? Most 1st generation immigrants I know (including those within my own family) do not want to relate to other 1st generation narratives and are more interested in assimilation and achieving their American dreams. It takes a few generations to gain some perspective. If course we may some day have micro-constituencies exploring their identities in a museum format as well.

  2. I haven’t been to the new, MOCA, although this post makes me want to go…but from what i see here (i.e. the name, content included) the museums seems to me to be a bit of a “cultural pride” museum. I don’t think that theres anything wrong with that, but it does leave room for expansion. Maybe the current MOCA could be a starting off point for deeper discussions such as mentioned in the post

  3. As a side note, this post made me wonder for a sec whether there would be as many identity museums if people felt like they were getting what they wanted from cultural history museums. And then, why are there no museums really fully dedicated to cultural history? It often seems to be stuck in here with science, or there with art (and of course I understand that those are both very important parts of the development of man and of cultures), but wouldn’t it be crazy to have a museum that really talked about world cultures, all together next to each other, historically and contemporarily? Does a museum like this exist? And don’t say it’s too big a topic. If we can take on ALL OF SCIENCE AND NATURAL HISTORY, can’t we take on human cultural history? Am I missing something obvious? Or would that be a minefield to program? Maybe that would make it good…

  4. MOCA is located in Chinatown/LES and is rather close in proximity to the Tenement Museum.
    While MOCA isn’t specifically aiming to only focus on Chinese culture in NYC, those memories and artefacts do dominate a large portion of the imagery found throughout the exhibits and on the website. I think this is rightfully so considering that the majority of chinese immigrants migrated through New York City before branching to other cities across the states.
    Knowing that there are similar cultural museums in New York City as well as the Tenement Museum which aims to tell multiple stories of immigration I think it would be great for these institutions to network and create more integrated programs / exhibits that would begin to mesh cultures together.

  5. Integrating programs with multiple institutions that carry the shared themes, such as immigration and cultural identity, would wonderful. It would show that these diverse cultures and experiences are connected. In a way, I would feel more drawn to the museums if they did connect it to an overall theme that many museums can participate in, for especially in America the majority of Americans are originally immigrates and I think sometimes that we lose sit of that.
    It would be fascinating to have a museum that focus on multiple identities in one space, for maybe the underling connection and differences can be more readily seen. It would also bring a larger audience together they may have not realized how shared some of the immigrant experiences are as a whole. In a way, it reminds me of Ellis Island. Visitors from all over travel to see where their relatives entered America and the stories behind their immigration.

  6. It is interesting to think about how cultures are represented in other institutions and look at who is telling the story. I think it is necessary to have identity museums, like the MOCA, to look at culture and history of Chinese Americans, to provide a broader context for understanding artifacts and objects that may appear in other collections.
    I agree with the comment above. If there was a program or “route” connecting different cultural museums in NYC, it would benefit tourism and further emphasize the foundations of America–to bring together cultures of the world.

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