Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Museum of the Chinese in America and New York's Lower East Side

The day after Christmas, heavy rain came to wash away all the snow. In New York City, the streets and the air were fuzzy and gray and the people were wet and giddy. It was a perfect day for a visit to the newly re-opened Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA).

The Museum boasts a newly-constructed core exhibition and an equally new architectural layout to match. The exhibition is ambitious, but falls short of constructing a coherent narrative. Drawing from the collection of objects and oral histories amassed over thirty years by the Chinatown History Project, the museum's predecessor, the exhibition attempts to transcend its New York locale, embracing the theme of Chinese immigration to America across the country. The narrative voice adopted is first-person and yet non-specific. In my option, this is the weakest part of the exhibition although I admire the curators' willingness to go out on a limb and try something new. First person voice is always more compelling when it is specific. The role of the curator should be to choose a selection of representative voices and then not to shy away from voicing an overarching historical theme. In this exhibition, the history appears opaque in the form of a timeline that runs along the wall at waist-height. All the pieces are there for a great exhibition, but they are lacking the glue.

The architecture of the building, in contrast, is truly top-notch. Maya Lin should be commended for her simple-yet-elegant, urban/organic approach. The stories and objects contained within the museum are rooted by the building's adaptive reuse, spiraling around a skylit internal courtyard. Watch Maya Lin describe this project here.

Also of note is MoCA's Story Map, a web feature which is still under construction. The ability to locate history in both place and time has become a mainstay of good public history websites. MoCA's has a lot of potential, especially in its embrace of content production by self-identified Chinese Americans across the country.

In addition to MoCA, Chinatown in New York City is worth visiting for its embodiment of changing landscape and identity. Restaurants and shops cater to residents, tourists, nostalgia and New York all within a streetscape that has changed little in the past 200 years despite the flux of cultural boundaries.