Take a Tour of the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific Collections this Autumn

Diverse artifacts all across the Smithsonian Institution captivate and confound in equal measure

The responsive-design website fits your phone, tablet and computer and can be used to make an itinerary for easy printout and planning. NPG, acquired through the generosity of Raymond L. Ocampo Jr., Sandra Oleksy Ocampo, and Robert P. Ocampo © 2010, Roger Shimomura

Seasoned D.C. museumgoers know that the Freer and Sackler galleries, reopening October 14, are prime destinations for those looking to explore the breadth of Asian culture, its ever-expanding diaspora and its role in shaping America’s collective identity. But Freer|Sackler is by no means the only place in town to see affecting Asian museum collections.

For those seeking a longer, more meandering journey through the stories of Asians and Pacific Islanders this fall, this new Smithsonian-wide tour, "Stories Across Asian Pacific America," put together by curator Adriel Luis of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, is just the ticket.

At the National Portrait Gallery on G Street, Shimomura Crossing the Delaware reimagines the classic image of American leadership as a whimsical Asian immigrant story. The artist stands in for George Washington, his oarsmen a band of samurai. The river becomes a vast blue sea, the waves rendered in traditional Japanese style.

At the adjoining American Art Museum, a mesmerizing 215-screen mixed media piece by Korean American artist Nam June Paik incorporates iconography from both Korea and the U.S., as well as the flags of countless other countries, to illustrate the chaos and overstimulation of our globalized lives.

A centuries-old Fijian throwing club, one of the very first items in the Smithsonian’s collection, is now on display at the Air and Space Museum. “I was really surprised to learn that the original objects that made up the Smithsonian collections are actually from the Pacific,” says Luis. He believes “an understanding of the fact that the foundation of America’s major institution is something that is transnational in itself, and also is a very complicated story”—the club and other Fijian artifacts were acquired through questionable means, to say the least—is crucial.

Also at Air and Space is Amelia Earhart’s Society of Woman Geographers pennant, which rode with Earhart on her monoplane voyage from Hawaii to California in 1935. This event, which pushed Hawaii down the road to statehood, also invites unpacking. “I think the story of how that flight affected people in Hawaii, when you look at it from the perspective of the people in Hawaii, is not often talked about,” says Luis, “in museums, or in general.”

More food for thought is available at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall, where a black GI’s jacket from the Vietnam War speaks to the intriguing overlap of “black power” ideology at home and the aspirations of the downtrodden Vietnamese on the other side of the conflict. Also on the Mall, the Hirshhorn is home to a Wish Tree planted by Japanese-American contemporary artist Yoko Ono. Visitors are invited to suspend hopeful notes from its branches throughout the summer months.

With all this and more at their fingertips, those in D.C. looking for an intellectual excursion this autumn are in for a real delight. Luis advises that those embarking on his tour expect the unexpected. The narrative of Asian migration and culture is not nearly as tidy as many Westerners might suppose.

“Whether looking at time or looking at space,” Luis says, “the experience of Asian Pacific America is one that bounces around and zigzags. It is not a very linear sort of story.”

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