INTERVIEW: Smithsonian to showcase Indian American history of last 2 centuries

By Deepak Chitnis

WASHINGTON, DC: Starting this Fall, the historic Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC will unveil a brand-new exhibition in its Museum of Natural History that focuses exclusively on the history and culture of Indian immigrants in the United States. The  exhibition, “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation,” which has been in the works since 2007, will be at the museum until Spring of 2015, at which point it will begin an unprecedented national tour in an attempt to reach as many people and communities as possible.

In an exclusive interview to The American Bazaar, the Curator for the Smithsonian Indian American Heritage Project, Dr. Masum Momaya, who joined the Smithsonian last summer, outlined the concept and vision behind the largest ever exhibition on the Indian American community in the United States.

Prior to joining the Smithsonian, Momaya was a curator at the International Museum of Women and engaged in curatorial work for the
Indo-American Heritage Museum. Her professional work, which includes exhibitions, publications, podcasts, lectures, and workshops, uses multimedia technologies and artistic representations to document the experiences of minority communities around the world.

Momaya earned a doctorate in Human Development and a master’s degree in Education from Harvard University, a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy and Feminist Studies from Stanford University, and pursued advance studies in the University of Oxford’s  Development Studies Program. She is a graduate of the Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs and a recipient of a National Science Foundation Research Fellowship.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q: How did the whole exhibition come about? How did it begin? What was the impetus behind it?

A: It began in 2007. There was a group of Indian American community members, both in the young professional generation and those who emigrated in the 1960s and 1970s, who approached the Smithsonian to say “we would love to have something to document our heritage as part of American history, would you consider engaging in collections and research to be able to create some sort of initiative that would document and exhibit Indian culture and history in the United States?”
The Smithsonian has had a history of showing Indian art as well as historical pieces about India and the Indian subcontinent, but had never done anything comprehensive about Indian immigrants and their descendants in the United States. So the Indian American Heritage Project was born out of this request from community members that was then received and taken up by the Smithsonian as something that they committed to doing. The Smithsonian gave some money for the project, community members gave some money as well. It began about five years ago – it didn’t have a full-time staff at that time – so bits and pieces of it were being done by volunteers as well as staff members who were giving their time whenever they could. In 2010, they hired the first curator, and then this past July I became the exhibition’s second curator.

Q: Why was there a sudden spur to have this exhibition now? What makes now the right time for this as opposed to maybe 10 or 15 years ago?

A: That’s an interesting question. There are currently about 3.3 million Indian Americans living the United States. We’re a growing population – one out of every 100 Americans is Indian American – so I think the rising number is partly responsible for the interest now. Also, I think, the growing role of India in the world – economically and culturally – is creating a lot of interest from non-Indians who want to know more about India’s history, culture, and Diaspora, particularly in the United States. There’s also growing interest in Indian media like films and music, as well as T-shirts and clothing that have Indian designs and aesthetics to them. It’s really a confluence of all these things coming together, as well as a feeling from the Indian American community that “we are here to stay, we are a part of American history,” which is something not many people know. So it’s important to take a step back and take a comprehensive look at that, not only for ourselves as Indian Americans, but also for the broader American public. Finally, the acts
of discrimination and violence against Indian Americans – whether they’re Sikh or Muslim or any kind of Indian American – that are
motivated by this mentality that “Indians are foreigners in this country.” This is technically not true because we’ve been here since
almost the founding of the nation. We are a part of this country’s history and heritage, and we’d like to educate the general public about
this and hopefully counter this unfortunate public perception.

Q: What types of pieces are going to be showcased in the exhibition, and how do you decide what to include and what to exclude from it?

A: The types of pieces that are going to be shown will vary. There will be historical pieces, such as early photographs and documents from families who have been in the United States for five or six generations. There will be newspaper documentation of Indian American communities starting from as far back as the early 1800s. There will also be immigration documents, as well as court documents showing Indian Americans struggling to gain citizenship in this country and, in some cases, having their citizenship revoked. There will also be objects representing the achievements of Indian Americans, such as part of the spacesuit worn by Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-American astronaut.
There will be the trophy of the first Indian-American student to ever win a spelling bee, from back in the 1980s. There will also be sports memorabilia of Indian-American athletes who made it to the top in their respective professions. And there will also be pieces of art that comment in some way on the Indian-American experience. There will be photographs that cover the spectrum of Indian American life. There will be selections of music that people can listen to by Indian American artists.

In terms of deciding what gets kept in the exhibition, there are a lot of factors that go into that. The first is whether or not the piece in
question is inherently compelling in and of itself. Does it tell a story? Is there something that you can gain just from looking at it,
without having to rely on a lot of explanatory text and background information? We’re trying to represent different aspects of life for
Indian Americans, so there will be food, art, music, dance, spirituality, history, etc. We’re trying to balance all those aspects to
provide as complete a picture as possible, both for Indian Americans and for the general public as well. And honestly, some pieces just get excluded for logistical reasons. People have been very generous and have donated tons of incredible items for the exhibition, but we only have a finite amount of space so unfortunately, there are some great pieces that we simply can’t fit and therefore have to be left out.

Q: Obviously the Indian American community is very interested in this exhibition, but how do you make the exhibition accessible to the broader public? How do you make it something that non-Indians will want to go out of their way to see?

A: One way we’re doing that is through the title – “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation.” We tried to think of what sorts of hooks people would know, especially those that aren’t Indian American, and the things that came to mind were Bollywood, Indian clothes, Indian dance, Indian music, things like that. A lot of people have been introduced to India through cultural things like those, so we use those and other stereotypes to get them in the door. Once they’re in, however, we hope that the exhibition is able to dispel those stereotypes and show them what Indian American culture really is.

Q: You’ve already touched on this a little bit, but what do you hope are the real long-term goals of the exhibition? Is combating stereotypes the main goal, or just one of many that you have in mind?

A: [Combating stereotypes] is certainly not the only goal, but it is a very big goal. A lot of people have this impression that Indians are all cab drivers or hotel owners or they work in convenience stores, but this isn’t true, and we want to broaden people’s knowledge and understanding of India and its culture. Another goal is for the Indian American community here to have a sense of pride, a sense of accomplishment for what they’ve been able to do in this country. We also want Indian Americans who are maybe a little out of touch with their heritage to reclaim that pride and realize what a rich history they are a part of. But I’d say that the main goal of the exhibition is, like I said, to really show people that Indians have been an integral part of American history. We want people to come out of the exhibition with a newfound understanding of the role Indian Americans play and have played in this country.

Q: You mentioned earlier that 1965-1970 is when the floodgates really opened and Indian immigration to this country really started to take off. How do you balance the pieces in the exhibition that are pre- and post-1965? Is that even a classification that you have in the exhibition?

A: The exhibition starts in the 1800s, and the 1965 immigration surge is certainly discussed in the exhibition, but it’s not a focal point that we’ve used to center the entire exhibition around. It’s not completely chronological, it’s more thematic. The exhibition is organized around different contributions that Indians have made to America. So it’s more organized around the types of contributions, not necessarily the timeline of the contributions. That’s not to say things aren’t in order, but the chronology was not the main organizing factor.

Q: Are there any Indian American celebrities that are involved with the exhibition in any way?

A: Absolutely. Madhur Jaffrey, the famous chef/actress, has contributed some of her early cookbooks as well as her cooking items from when she first immigrated to the US and began her cooking career. Actors like Kal Penn and Maulik Pancholy who have been involved in spreading the word and also contributing things to the exhibition. Several athletes are involved, such as: Mohini Bhardwaj, the Olympian; Darsh Singh, the NCAA basketball player; Brandon Chillar, the (NFL) football player. A number of Indian American business leaders have also lent their support to the exhibition, as well as cultural organizations like AAHOA (Asian American
Hotel Owners Association) and AAPI (American Association of Physicians of Indian origin).

Q: The exhibition is expected to be at the Smithsonian for some time, and then it’ll going to tour the country. Can you comment on what that will entail?

A: Sure. The exhibition will be at the Natural History Museum from this coming Fall until 2015, so about 15 months or so. After that, it will be distilled into a smaller exhibition that can be taken around from city to city, and will tour the country for about five years. We will display items from the exhibition in schools, libraries, places of worship, basically anywhere there’s an interest from the community to see what we have to show. We haven’t yet locked down exactly what cities the tour will go to, but the runs in each city will last about 12 weeks.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: The Smithsonian has taken on this amazing project, but it’s really a collaboration with the Indian-American community. By sharing objects and coming to see the exhibition, we get to share our heritage and culture, and we get to see the spirit and enthusiasm of our community. It’s great to see the resources of an institution as amazing as [the Smithsonian] being used to tell a story as vast as this, and we’re really enthusiastic about getting the word out about this exhibition. This is a great opportunity to show how truly diverse and, ultimately, American we really are. (GIN-The American Bazaar)

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