WASHINGTON (TIP): Indian-Americans have won plaudits for achievements in science and swept 11 of the last 15 national spelling bees, while others in the community have faced discrimination and even violence.
As the Smithsonian, the US national complex of museums, portrays the Indian- American experience for the first time, organizers have faced hard questions about how to portray a diverse — and occasionally argumentative — community of nearly three million people.
The exhibition, “Beyond Bollywood: Indian-Americans Shape the Nation,” opened February 27 at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington for a one-year run, with plans afterward for the project to tour the United States through 2020.
The exhibition — which takes up everything from yoga to cuisine to hip-hop — features artifacts including the trophy of the first Indian-American spelling bee champion in 1985 and a gown worn by First Lady Michelle Obama that was designed by Indian- American Naeem Khan.
Masum Momaya, the curator, said that planning for the exhibition involved intense debate among Indian-Americans on whether to showcase success stories or to delve into their struggles. “I think that, throughout, there was this seesaw in the community with some people saying, ‘No, take out anything that’s related to achievement,’ and others saying, ‘There’s so much stuff about discrimination; that seems so heavy and sad,'” Momaya said.
“It was definitely an ongoing tension and I think this will be reflected in people’s reaction to it — and live beyond the exhibition,” she said. Momaya said that the debate often went along generational lines, with older Indian- Americans more eager to highlight achievements. Younger Indian Americans often had a different take, with some faulting the exhibition for reinforcing a stereotype of an overachieving model minority.
Momaya said she tried to balance the two sides and also make an exhibition accessible to non-South Asian audiences visiting the museum, which receives more than eight million visitors a year. “I didn’t want this to be a ghettoized space in the museum where people say that this isn’t about me or my community,” she said.
Through Indian-American eyes Setting the atmosphere, the exhibition’s entrance features a shoe rack, showing how South Asians traditionally walk barefoot at home. To Momaya’s surprise, a number of visitors — both of Indian descent and not — have slipped off their own footwear upon spotting the tray. The visitor immediately hears the music of Bollywood movies from the 1960s and 1970s, representing how many Indians — moving as the United States liberalized its immigration laws — brought with them records which they presumed they would not find.
The exhibition invites guests to experience, in small ways, the life of an Indian immigrant. At one point, a visitor stands in the footsteps of an Indian motel owner, looking out on a lobby with all- American images such as a crucifix and a sign, “No Pets, No Checks, No Refunds.” Meanwhile, a table out of customers’ views is cluttered with images of Hindu deities and VHS videotapes of Indian movies.
The exhibition does not shy away from discrimination against South Asians. It features a video interview of a Sikh taxi driver who shared his occasional fears of customers and also highlights South Asian activism on behalf of gay, lesbian and transgender Americans. In one of the most striking displays, the exhibition features the turban of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas station owner in Arizona killed days after the September 11, 2001 attacks. South Asians faced growing violence after the al-Qaida attacks, especially Sikh men — who wear turbans but have no connection to radical Islam.
Momaya said she had just started to work on the exhibition in August 2012 when a white supremacist attacked a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, killing six worshippers. Momaya said she was struck how Sikhs, long part of the United States, felt obliged to defend themselves as patriotic. The attack led her to steep the exhibition in the “contemporary conversations on race and immigration.” “Who belongs? Who is an American? I think those are particularly poignant questions for an exhibition in Washington,” she said.