Tuesday, September 22, 2009


A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post about the "story map" project of the Museum of Chinese in America, which has just re-opened in a new location in New York City. I'm big into history museum exhibition design, and one of my very favorite writers on this and other topics is Edward Rothstein of the New York Times. (Q. Does Ed Rothstein have a fantastic surplus of brain cells? And would I like to do a mind-meld with him? A. Yes, and yes.) Click here for a typically incisive piece he wrote today about the museum. 

Rothstein says that the museum, now with greater ambitions than before, is "joining an ever-lengthening roster of American museums of identity." Such museums have similar story arcs, he says: after a period of suffering, the community creates a place for itself in U.S. history, and their identity becomes a source of strength. Rothstein considers the both the architecture (by Maya Lin) and the exhibition galleries, the most fascinating of which he says display "how the image of Chinese-Americans was shaped into stereotypes in early 20th-century culture, ranging from Fu Manchu's villainy to chop suey's homogenized exoticism." Rothstein goes on to say that "despite the museum's considerable achievement it also harbors a tension that reveals some of the problems with the identity archetype." He adds that the 1960s' political movements improved the status of all minorities, and that it was also during that era when "the identity narrative itself was shaped." 

Rothstein's thoughts on an "identity narrative" parallel the arguments about identity politics -- namely that an oppressed group in society must carve out a space for itself, and gains strength from doing so, but then the identity can also be limiting. I think Rothstein is smart to tease out the idea that there is not just an identity, but an "identity narrative" from which a social group derives strength. Identity, after all, cannot be separated from history. As individuals and as social groups, people are who we are partly because of where we come from. Read the whole article for Rothstein's insight into the museum, and the "identity narrative." 

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