With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Jill Jefferies

Published on April 11, 2013

  • Museum: Museum of Chinese in America

  • Visit Date: April, 2013

  • Description:

    Historian John Kuo Wei Tchen originally founded the Museum of Chinese in America, MOCA, as a community-based organization in 1980. Tchen was concerned about preserving the memories and experiences of past generations of Chinese-Americans living in New York City. Out of this mission grew the museum, as we know it today. “MOCA hopes to increase the visibility of the myriad voices and identities that make up Chinese American history, while increasing local and global dialogue. By understanding and documenting what is happening today, we strive to shape tomorrow” (MOCA.org). Many of the museum’s past exhibits juxtapose stereotypes and facts about Chinese culture, causing the audience to confront their own thoughts and feelings towards the information on display. The current exhibition, With a Single Step, follows a similar blueprint.

    The exhibition takes advantage of the newly renovated space on 215 Centre Street by encompassing the entire first floor. After you enter the minimalist wood and steel entrance you are faced with the “Journey Wall” that sets up the main idea of the exhibition and the museum. Chinese-Americans have made a home in America, it wasn’t easy and their history is relatively unknown, but nonetheless here they are and this is their story. While the exhibit focuses on Chinese-Americans, it’s meant for all visitors. Because within their story, is really the story of America, for better and worse.
    With a Single Step spans 160 years of Chinese-American history, starting with Chinese immigration into the west coast of America in the 1850’s. Many Chinese left their homeland to secure a better life for themselves and their family. The first room of the exhibit has many photographs and paintings depicting what was left behind and what greeted them in America. The room is cluttered with too many labels and entirely too much wall text. The visitor is overwhelmed by the amount there is to read, and will soon be disappointed that the text is highly repetitive and doesn’t seem to build into a cohesive narrative. Many of the “interactive elements” such as drawers that pull out from the wall, and label flaps don’t engage the visitor beyond the physical action it takes to work said elements. Unfortunately, this pattern persists throughout the exhibition.

    While the lay out, lighting and narrative are lacking in many places the exhibition does gain ground in the “General Store” and the “exoticism of Chinatowns in America” rooms. The store is set-up in a way that encapsulates a time and a place and allows the visitor to step back in time and understand the importance of these stores to their communities and to the people that ran them. Shop owners had more rights and used their higher standings to help the lower class write letters, wire money, and buy transport to and from China. The “exoticism” space explores many of the stereotypes that have been created for Chinese Americans. These include the Fu Manchu persona and the creation of chop-suey. There is a particularly interesting vignette of two photos taken in Chinatown in San Francisco, one has been doctored to make the surrounding look more exotic and different. It’s a great example of how the media and American social conscience worked together to ostracize and marginalize Chinese-Americans.

    I have experienced this exhibition with a school group and alone and there is much more to be gained when on a guided tour. Unfortunately, the exhibition is too haphazard and lacking in structure to give a lone visitor a truly engaging experience. That being said the museum does a beautiful job of leading tours for adults and school groups, and they would benefit greatly if they employed some of those strategies into their self-guided plans.

    Though I think there are ways to make the space more inviting and interactive for guests I can appreciate what the exhibition was intended to do. I have been there twice in the last four months and there have been significant changes to the exhibition to make it more user-friendly and attractive to those who don’t have a history background. If the evolution continues the exhibition will improve greatly, allowing for a deeper and more meaningful experience for their guests.

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