As acts of violence and racism directed at Asian Americans increase, USC Pacific Asia Museum prepares to decolonize their exhibits with plans to release seven new exhibits that explore and celebrate the diversity of Asian American cultures.
Photo: By Reanne Estrada, Privacy Prophylactics, 2019–present, mixed media (printed masks with faces harvested from *thispersondoesnotexist.com), Courtesy of the artist
The USC Pacific Asia Museum (PAM) is dedicated to the arts and culture of Asia and the Pacific Islands. In response to the death of George Floyd, the museum released a statement which revealed that it would be planning to decolonize its exhibits. “As the leading university art museum dedicated to the arts and cultures of Asia and the Pacific Islands, USC PAM is aware that historically, museums played a key role in constructing Orientalism and we must play an equally key role in deconstructing it,” says Nathalia Morales-Evanks, head of communications and marketing for the museum.
USC Pacific Asia Museum Director Bethany Montagano is prepared and determined to implement the changes, saying, “The notion of Orientalism collapses identities amongst Asian peoples amongst one very problematic stereotype where people still refer to Asian people in the United States as ‘Orientals.’ It’s a brand that was really meant to cast Asian people in the United States as foreigners. Asian American communities in the United States have seen their sense of belonging demeaned. There’s increased acts of violence and increased acts of racism projected on Asian Americans right now. That is why it is important to deconstruct the Orient right now. We have to play an equally important role in deconstructing it.”
All of the exhibits will be reevaluated and interpreted within the museum. PAM plans to look at its own practices and methodologies. A plan has been conducted to face the remnants of colonization head on. The museum will be going through collections and identifying objects that may be problematic. They will also make the effort to be cross-cultural between the City of Los Angeles and Asian American communities in Los Angeles. When working to decolonize their exhibits, they will strive to build a more inclusive and community outreach-based museum.
The museum plans to release seven unique exhibits which explore and celebrate the diversity of Asian American cultures. The first exhibit, “We are Here,” features seven female artists and gives voice to a rising generation of Asian artists from different perspectives. But not all of the exhibits are your typical displays. “ALLOS: The Story of Carlos Bulosan” is a play that talks about issues of immigration, migration, and stereotypes that come with being Filipino.
Decolonizing exhibits wouldn’t be possible without tackling the concept of the model minority. “Debunking the Model Minority” is from the vantage point of Asian American students that feel like they are living under two opposing spectrums: the model minority myth and being perceived as perpetual foreigners. “Debunking the Model Minority Myth” sheds light on what it’s like to experience the pressures that Asian American students are supposed to live up to. The museum hopes to encourage communities to work together to debunk stereotypes and myths about Asian Americans in general.
The next exhibit, “Stronger Together: Black Liberation and Asian Solidarity,” explores the intersectionality between the greater struggle of Black and Asian people. It focuses on stories of empowerment and models of solidarity that date back to the 1950s.
Pulitzer Prize winner and author Viet Than Nyugen writes extensively about the refugee experience in the exhibit “Southeast Asian Refugee Narratives.” This exhibit was created to spark a dialogue about what happens when a group’s land and identity have been stripped from them. Cambodians, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese people’s stories are all included, which leads to the following exhibit, “Mapping L.A.: Asian American Migration Experiences.” It is an immersive event where USC animation students created a projection-mapping experience that explores the histories of diverse neighborhoods including Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and Koreatown. Its purpose is to create a conversation between the museum and these communities.
“Crossroads: Exploring the Silk Road” was also created to deepen relationships between the museum and Asian American communities. But “Crossroads” is about making content accessible to families and children. It’s a story about exchange and how humans need one another.
The final exhibit, “Intervention: Perspectives for a New PAM,” will show off the work that has been completed over the course of the next year. It is a reminder to let in and invite community voices to shape a larger narrative. This exhibit will include work created by male, female, and nonbinary artists. Montagano emphasizes, “It’s going to be a new awakening for PAM, where this young Asian voice can represent diversity and nuance, and we are really excited to amplify that.”