With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America

Review

of an Exhibition

by Liza Lowell

Published on March 25, 2011, Modified on March 25, 2011

  • Description:

    The Museum of Chinese in America’s Core Exhibition, With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America, seeks to communicate a multi-dimensional message. By attempting to engage through dialogue, the Museum hopes to encourage exchange (social, cultural and political) amongst its visitors while enabling them to bring a new methodology and/or sensibility to their thinking after they experience the exhibit. In attempting to communicate this message, the exhibit addresses issues of racism and immigration from the past through the present-day. A “dialogical approach” to the exhibit contributes to the Museum’s efforts to communicate these messages, insisting that communal dialogue amongst visitors, and between visitors and museum staff, will help “transcend generational, geographical and cultural boundaries” while also “spreading knowledge about the history and culture of the Chinese in America” (MOCA website).

    It remains subjective whether With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America successfully communicates its intention for interaction. Trouble mainly arises with the layout. In many instances, the Core Exhibition is confusing. Upon observation, visitors (including myself and those I was with) struggle with where to go, what to focus their attention on and the ways in which they are, in fact, invited to interact with the display. For example, in some rooms drawers have been strategically placed in the wall (meant for pulling open, looking into and exploring)–an engaging concept yet no indication exists to relay this to visitors. As a result, people often overlook or simply pass by the drawers thereby missing the content that lies within.

    Based on my experience, only one specific aspect of the Core Exhibit openly reflects a dialogical objective. This occurs in the section entitled Towards a More Perfect Union (1960-Present) showcasing a display entitled The Hapa Project. The accompanying label explains The Hapa Project as “a forum for Hapas to answer ‘What are you?’ in their own words” (Hapa being a Hawaiian term used to describe a person of mixed Asian or Pacific Islander racial/ethnic heritage). The words partner with head-on portraits of the individuals interviewed. Looking at this project immediately invokes questions on behalf of the viewer as to what identity truly means. Due to the nature of content and the way in which personal experiences unfold communally, it is here where one finally senses the Museum’s attempts to actively encourage a dialogue among visitors regarding concepts of race.

    While MoCa expresses a desire to engage conversation among visitors, to stimulate awareness and a sense of understanding through shared dialogues, its efforts often become lost amidst an overwhelming visual display of wall text and graphic. Aside from The Hapa Project, the “Big Ideas” communicated by the exhibition remain mostly unclear resulting in a slightly thought-provoking but more often perplexing (and frustrating) museum experience.

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