The Smithsonian is home to a vast array of artifacts that bridge the regions and cultures of Asia, the Pacific and America, yesterday and today. The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center is part of a community that is global, fluid and ever-evolving, and on this tour the center's curator Adriel Luis leads a transnational journey throughout the collections of the Smithsonian’s museums to uncover stories of Asian Pacific history and culture. The objects on this tour encapsulate a range of topics—from migration to global affairs to cross-cultural influence—showing that the Asian Pacific American experience transcends time and space.
National Museum of American History
The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History collects and preserves more than 3 million artifacts—all true national treasures. The museum is home to everything from the original Star-Spangled Banner and Abraham Lincoln’s top hat to Dizzy Gillespie’s angled trumpet and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. The collections form a fascinating mosaic of American life and comprise the greatest single collection of American history.
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At the National Museum of American History’s “Many Voices, One Nation” exhibition, visitors can find a display dedicated to the Lares family, whose experience reflects that of many immigrants in the United States. Napoleon Lares immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 1984, and spent the next seven years as an electrical technician in Maryland working to bring his fiancée and two daughters over as well. This photo of the Lares family with relatives was taken at the Manila airport in 1991 as they prepared to depart for the United States.
In 2009 Michelle Obama became the first African American First Lady of the United States of America. The designer of her inaugural gown, Jason Wu, is a case study in transnationalism today. Born in Taipei, Taiwan, Wu immigrated with his family to Vancouver, Canada. His education took him around the world— attending schools in Canada, the United States and France, and studying sculpture in Japan, and eventually moving to New York City to pursue his career as a fashion designer. First Lady Obama wore Wu designs for several other historic occasions, including President Barack Obama’s first official European trip and at the 2013 Presidential Inaugural Balls. This silk chiffon gown is displayed at the National Museum of American History’s “The First Ladies” exhibition.
Tells the multifaceted story of America through the individuals who have shaped its culture. Through the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the American story.
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This bust of the Hollywood star Ginger Rogers was sculpted by her friend Isamu Noguchi while he was held in an incarceration camp in 1942. Noguchi was born in California but spent his early childhood in Japan. Noguchi, unlike the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were forced to relocate into state-run facilities during World War II, instead volunteered to be imprisoned at a camp in Poston, Arizona, in part as protest and solidarity. Although Noguchi had become widely known as a sculptor, his fame did little to help him as he petitioned lawmakers to lift the policy that labeled Americans of Japanese descent as wartime enemies. So in May 1942 Noguchi entered the Arizona facility, with the intention of promoting arts and crafts to other incarcerees. While there, Noguchi found that his mixed-race background and international upbringing isolated him from the rest of the Japanese American community there, and he left six months later. Yet, during his short experience he carved sculptures like that of Rogers, and sketched plans for parks that were intended for the people he had set out to support.
Portraiture, traditionally reserved for the elite, has become a vehicle for the marginalized to claim their presence. Roger Shimomura has demonstrated this idea throughout his career as a painter, and his piece Shimomura Crossing the Delaware is a clear example. This enormous work—spanning 12 feet wide and six feet high—is a collision of imagery from America, where Shimomura was born and raised, and Japan, where the artist traces his ethnic roots. Drawing inspiration from Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, Shimomura inserts himself into the role of General George Washington, and replaces Washington's crew with Japanese samurais. A backdrop resembles Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, the immigration station where nearly one million Asians entered the U.S. between 1910 and 1940. Shimomura's remix of a quintessential American painting, done in the style of a Japanese woodblock print, illustrates the complex toggling of cultures that many Asian Americans experience.
The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, a leading voice for contemporary art and culture, provides a national platform for the art and artists of our time in the celebrated Gordon Bunshaft designed cylindrical building and adjoining plaza and sunken sculpture garden.
Although Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese artist, she had her heart set on being an American for the 15 years that she lived in the United States. First moving to Seattle and settling in New York City, she quickly became influential in the burgeoning avant-garde scene in the city but eventually moved back to Japan for health reasons. Kusama’s work has remained an on-going conversation between her experiences in Japan and the U.S., addressing feminism, the effects of nuclear war and mental health. Kusama’s sculpture Pumpkin remains at the Hirshhorn in the museum’s sculpture garden following the wildly popular retrospective, "Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors," that drew crowds in record numbers to the museum. The show focused on “self-obliteration,” a concept developed during her New York years as a reaction to the Vietnam War.
Tucked in a lower courtyard in the Hirshhorn’s Sculpture Garden is a Japanese dogwood tree, where you might find in the summer months some scribbled tags dangling from the branches. This is a Wish Tree; it is among a series of trees planted by conceptual artist Yoko Ono in different cities around the world. Ono was born in Japan but has been influential in the American art world ever since she moved to New York in the 1950s. An early example of a transnational artist, Ono has lived between the United States, Japan and Europe, actively presenting work as social commentary about each setting. Wish Tree is an interactive installation that invites visitors from around the world to share their visions for world peace, and the one in Washington, D.C. is the only permanent version in the U.S.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum, the nation’s first collection of American art, is an unparalleled record of the American experience. Its artworks capture the aspirations, character, and imagination of the American people across four centuries. The museum is home to one of the largest and most inclusive collections of American art in the world, revealing America’s rich artistic and cultural history from the colonial period to today.
Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway—a massive map of the United States with televisions looping footage corresponding with each state—is perhaps one of the most iconic and much-loved pieces at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. But it’s Paik's other artwork at the museum, Megatron/Matrix, that best reflects Paik’s significance as one of the earliest Asian American transnational artists. Paik was born in Seoul, South Korea, and fled with his family to Hong Kong during the Korean War. He continued to find home in different parts of the world, studying music in Tokyo and Munich before pursuing a career as an artist in the United States. Considered the “godfather of media art,” Paik was obsessed with emerging technologies and often used them to create art that bridged cultural concepts. In Matrix, Paik distorts and splices footages and imagery from an array of sources, including the 1988 Seoul Olympics, traditional Korean folk rituals, American television, and digital versions of flags from throughout the world. A constantly-transforming collage made of 215 monitors, Matrix was created in 1998 but is a vivid telling of today’s barrage of media and technology in an increasingly globalized world.
Nam June Paik, Megatron/Matrix, 1995, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase made possible by Mr. and Mrs. Barney A. Ebsworth, Nelson C. White, and the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 1998.86
The story of the Smithsonian’s collection begins in the Pacific in 1838—a decade before the Smithsonian Institution was established—when the United States Exploring Expedition, led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, began with the goal of establishing the United States as a world economic power. Over the course of the four-year expedition across the Pacific, 40 tons of objects and artifacts were collected and later became the foundation of the Smithsonian’ Institution's collections.
This iula (a Fijian throwing club) was acquired in 1840 and is among the original collections of the National Museum of Natural History and is on view at the National Air and Space Museum's "Time and Navigation" exhibition. Wilke’s arrival in Fiji was a conflicted event. After a barter-gone-awry led to the killings of two members of the expedition’s party, a fight broke out between Americans and native Fijians—close to 80 natives died and two local villages were destroyed. Similar violence occurred in other parts of the Pacific during the expedition, including in Kiribati and Samoa. The “Time and Navigation” exhibition displays several artifacts from these countries, as well as Indonesia and what are now known as British Columbia and Oregon.
Second Floor, Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery
A century after the Wilkes Expedition, a new campaign for American expansion in the Pacific began. In 1934, Congress enacted a tariff on all foreign sugar exporters to the United States—including Hawaiʻi, which at the time was not a U.S. state but a territory. Incentivized to prove that this cluster of islands was a lucrative and strategic part of the United States, the sugar industry of the territory worked with members of the U.S. government to coordinate a plan toward statehood.
The famed aviator Amelia Earhart was tapped with the challenge to become the first person to fly nonstop from Hawaiʻi to California—an act that would bring the Hawaiian islands closer to the rest of the nation, at least in the eyes of the American public. On January 11, 1935, Earhart departed from Honolulu, and successfully landed in Oakland the following day. This historic flight paved the path for Pan American Airlines to begin service flights from California to Hawaiʻi later that year, expanding American tourism there and eventually leading to statehood in 1959. The pennant shown here, given to Earhart by the Society of Woman Geographers, was one of the possessions she took on her flight.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
The National Museum of African American History and Culture was established in 2003 by an Act of Congress, making it the 19th Smithsonian Institution museum. The museum will be a place where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience, what it means to their lives and how it helped us shape this nation. A place that transcends the boundaries of race and culture that divide us, and becomes a lens into a story that unites us all. The museum's grand opening is September 24, 2016.
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The Vietnam War took place from 1955 to 1975, often intersecting with the Civil Rights Movement. The African American fight for civil rights empowered and offered momentum to Native American, Latino and Asian American movements, and concepts of “third world liberation” emerged, aligning the plights of people of color in the United States with issues overseas. Important figures like Muhammad Ali compared the U.S.’s actions in Vietnam with the treatment of blacks in the U.S., and Dr. Martin Luther King took a fierce stance against the war while speaking of racial equity. This jacket in the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s exhibition, “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond,” was worn by a black U.S. soldier while on tour in Vietnam, demonstrating that the ideals of American civil rights echoed throughout the world.