This Week, in Filipino American Heritage Month

The winner of the most-ethnicities-in-one-title-describing-one-man award– Joe Bataan, the Afro-Filipino king of Latin Soul! That’s really something, isn’t it? If you’re in the Washington DC area, talk a ride down the NMNH and find out just how something it is:



The official description:

Come learn about the power of music to move people—to get us on our feet and across borders of race, geography, class, language, and culture. The intersecting lines of heritage in Joe Bataan’s music and identity offer a unique entry point into the lives and community commitments of the civil rights movement and a deeper understanding of the American experience. Born and raised in Spanish Harlem to a Filipino father and an African American mother, Joe Bataan symbolizes the dynamic intersections between Afro-Asian-Latino histories and cultural forms.

Join us for a public discussion featuring Joe Bataan, activist and performer Nobuko Miyamoto, and African American Studies scholar Dr. Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar. With them we revisit the political and cultural ferment and collaboration of the late 1960s and 1970s in New York City when groups such as the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords Party, Asian Americans for Action, and El Comité contributed to dynamic social justice movements, catalyzed largely by young people, which inspired cultural pride, creativity, and activism. Miguel “Mickey” Melendez, author and former member of the Young Lords, will moderate the discussion.

Friday, October 19, 2012
Public Talk: 6:30 p.m. — 7:30 p.m
Performance: 8:00 p.m. — 9:00 p.m

National Museum of Natural History
Baird Auditorium
10th & Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C.  20530

Free and open to the public

The Renwick Gallery

On my quest to visit every Smithsonian museum in the District, I went to visit the Renwick Gallery, dedicated to American crafts. The purpose of the museum is to save the building itself, as much as it is to display the collection. It’s only a few blocks from the White House, so one makes a good side trip for the other:


Inside the museum, as you would expect are arts and crafts-y things. Most of the objects are too arts-y to be used, which is why they’re in a museum where no one can touch them, but also too crafts-y to be displayed in arts museums. Like this set of silver ware:

There’s also a painting gallery, seemingly unrelated to the crafts section of the gallery. I think that the paintings were lovely, but its hard to tell. A lot of them hang so high on the wall that most of what I could see was reflections off the oil paint:

Like I said earlier in the post, if you’re already headed to the White House, the Renwick Gallery makes a nice side trip.

Show Me Proof

Trolling the Smithsonian network this morning, I came across an astounding claim on the library blog— Indians didn’t invent curry! In fact, the post claims, Indians and Brits developed it at the same time! To which I say, show me the proof. Until then, I remain incredulous.

To summarize: the blogger claims that India and Britain developed curry “concurrently, but independently”. It then goes on to say that the first recipe for English curry can be found in the 1747 edition of Hannah Glasse’s “The Art of Cooking Made Plain and Easy”. I have a few questions regarding this claim:

1. Is curry an English word? And if its a Hindustani word that English adopted, as is argued by Dharam Jit Singh in his book “Classic Cooking From India” (Riverside Press, 1956), how is it that the English invented it on their own? What did they call it?

2. When did Indians develop curry then? Did they not have spices until the 18th century? I don’t think that’s the way it happened.

3. Should we also claim that the English invented fried rice?



The Butterfly Garden

Tucked into the second floor of the National Museum of Natural History is a live butterfly pavilion. It’s bright and humid, just the way live butterflies like it. And because I’m an intern, I get one ticket per week to visit (free, just the way unpaid interns like it):

Because the pavilion is a tight enclosed space, people are let in in groups. I got grouped in with a troupe of pre-teen Girl Scouts. Sadly, one of the Girl Scouts stepped on a butterfly and was gently chastised by a volunteer. No dead bug pictures here.


I found it odd that there were markers all over the place identifying the flowers, but not the butterflies, who, at least in name, should have been the belles of the ball:


The wings are beautiful, to be sure, but what ever made amateur enthusiasts want to kill them and pic them to pieces of cardboard? Was it ownership? A signal that the collector had, in fact, conquered the species instead of simply seeing it and marveling at it? Maybe I don’t understand because pictures don’t involve killing. Maybe I don’t understand because amateur collecting and science overlapped in ways that make me uncomfortable. There are parallels between collecting butterflies, taking African art, and taking indigenous bodies.

The scale of the acts is different, but the attitude is the same. As if the entire world were available for subjugation.

The National Museum of African Art

The NMAA connects to the Freer and Sackler galleries under ground. Let’s also say that they are linked together by their subject matter (art from non-white continents) and by the collection histories (art from people who “collected” in colonized contexts). It is a difficult collection history to face. On one hand, the works of art are very beautiful, and history has brought them to the museum, even if much of it has been rather unsavory. On the other hand, neither the curators nor the public should forget those unsavory parts of museum history. Because of it, much of the information about the art works has been lost. Information is now lost that wasn’t considered important during the collection process, like the name of the artist, or the culture and time period in which it originated, or what the intent behind its creation was. These works of art were considered proof of Africa’s primitiveness and savagery, and the museum set them up as ethnographic objects in contrast to the art of “civilized Europeans”. How does one set up a museum that faces this history, and then moves in a new direction?

In the case of this mask, they address that history in the text. It’s nothing particularly strong, it doesn’t say that taking masks out of context is wrong, or that it was a common problem based on the way that collectors viewed African art, but you can read the acknowledgement yourself:

The striking disconnect between the divisions of the painted surface and the underlying carved form is an aspect of African art that first entranced Western audiences. The Western lack of awareness of context was such that when this mask was exhibited in the 1950’s in France, it was identified as coming from a different part of Africa. Later research attributed this mask to the Tongo peoples as part of a wider tradition of divided color faces.

Or it can be even less direct, like with this carved ivory piece:

The text accompanying this piece identifies it as a commissioned piece, a royal gift from Prince Manuel of Portugal to King Ferdinand V of Castile and Aragon. Displayed in the center of the room, it places African art directly into the tradition of Europe, showing European interaction and even motifs.

Teach Me, Whoopi!

As a Smithsonian intern, I get a few perks. One of them is a free IMAX or Planetarium ticket for each week. So today, I took advantage of this perk, and went with some of my coworkers to see “Journey to the Stars”, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg and the National Air and Space Museum. NASM is one of those popular museums that’s always crowded because they have actual planes in the museum and now, the Space Shuttle (this is not a space shuttle):

Neither is this:

Oh, wait. What does that say? NASA.

And what does that say? Read it backwards! Employee! Close as I get to feeling like a boss:

Whoopi has a nice voice and all, but I could not tell you what I learned from that movie. Except that stars look like snow flakes and fireflies, depending on how one travels through them. And the music! So dramatic. It felt a little bit like watching the “visualization” option on music players.

Poetics, Poetics

In a city as big as DC, it’s easy to get pushed around or waylaid without a clear, strong vision of who you are or what you want. Maybe it’s because everyone else is here for a purpose, and ready to do whatever they need to do to reach it. Maybe that’s what politics is. If people can push you around, they will.

I was reminded of this because the Association of Asian American Studies (AAAS) Conference was this past week. Getting something out of an academic conference also requires a clear, strong vision. I look through the schedule and pick out sessions that a) sound interesting/unique; b) are relevant to something I know at least a little about; and c) will be useful for me to know about later. Bonus points if the presenter is someone I already know is good. This strategy is the difference between thinking “For real? Someone is passionate about something this uncharted? I want to get their email and ask them questions about this because I am inspired!” or “For real? Someone wrote a paper on something this obscure? I am so glad I was able to nap through their talk (especially because they read their paper without ever making eye contact with the audience)!”

The highlight of the conference, human connections aside, was definitely the Between Word and Image Symposium put on by the National Portrait Gallery, the Asian American Literary Review, and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program. At their best, the writers’ responses made me take another look at the visual pieces. The connections they drew posed questions that I hadn’t even thought about, like Marianne Villanueva framing Hye Yeon Nam’s piece “Walking Drinking Eating Sitting”. Nam’s piece takes everyday actions and makes them odd. Villanueva took normative expectations of Asian American femininity and deconstructed them. Suddenly, Nam’s piece didn’t just say “Look! Isn’t this weird?” Now it said, “You wanted an Asian American woman? You got me. And I’m more real that you can handle. I’m eating cherry tomatoes with a ruler.”

Well, it probably said that the whole time. But I needed some help getting to the interpretation.