How did you become an anthropologist?
I grew up on the West Coast, and East Asia was always the place just beyond the horizon. When I was a junior in college I had a chance to study in Hong Kong, which was as far away from home as I could get at that moment, and I think that's when I decided to become an anthropologist of East Asia. I was thoroughly excited. I had already decided to go into anthropology. When I was a freshman I was asked to decide on a major and I had quite an array of interests, that ranged from literature to political science, and in my first anthropology class I learned that anthropology was the study of human beings in their entirety. And I said "That's fine—I don't have to make a choice. I can do it all, or as much or as little as I find interesting!" So I've always been a fairly eclectic anthropologist.
All right, there was Hong Kong and then suddenly I was a graduate, degree in hand, and the logical thing to do was to prepare for a career in anthropology. Rather than bouncing into graduate school, I joined the Peace Corps and the Peace Corps sent me to Korea and that became my specialty. Korea has a very difficult language, and in some respects a difficult culture to get inside. It was so challenging, it was so tough that by the end of the second year I felt I had so much invested in it that I'd never give it up—Korea had become my second home.
Can you tell us about some of the cultures you've studied? How has your wider cultural perspective aided you in creating this exhibition?
As I've mentioned, I'm an anthropologist of Korea, and to be an anthropologist of Korea means knowing something about China and something about Japan. These are all cultures that at one point used Chinese script and took a lot of cultural learning from China. I was in interested in Vietnam because when I went to Vietnam I saw it as a place that was, like China, Korea, and Japan, a Confucian-influenced, Mahayana Buddhist culture. It was a place where things looked familiar, but were just different enough to be interesting. In my dealings with Vietnam I had found that my prior experience with Korea taught me what questions to ask, but my experience in Vietnam also taught me that I couldn't answer them without a deeper knowledge of Vietnam than I possessed.
I'll give you an example. In Vietnam, as you will see in our exhibit, on the ancestral altar you usually put a huge branch of a flowering peach tree. Why? Because in East Asian symbology, peaches are symbols of spring, of the awakening of young forces that are very warm, hot, potent–very auspicious. So they're not only beautiful, but also a good wish for the new year. Now, in Korea that symbology is shared. Peaches are very hot, very young, very potent, but you would never put peaches or peach flowers on the ancestral altar in Korea because they would repel the ancestors who come from the yin world (a cold and shadowy place)! Although the symbology is shared, it is used in very different ways.
Similarly, when the exhibition designer Gerhard Schlanzky showed his design for the installation of votive paper for the exhibit, he showed it installed against a red background, I questioned the use of red because, in my experience, red has to do with life and vitality, and in China people talk about weddings as red business and funerals as black business. However, my Vietnamese colleagues really loved his use of the color red. They said, But black isn't the funeral color, it's white. And I responded that yes, I knew that, but shouldn't it be white, not red? And they said, But votive paper isn't just about funerals! And I said, Yes, but isn't it about the dead? And they said, We wish good, auspicious, happy things for the dead! OK, I was educated! I had been taught to ask the question, but I had to ask it to get the answer.
What is the role of a curator in creating an exhibition?
Every exhibition is different. The role of the curator is very different depending on the exhibition itself. And this was a fairly unique exhibit. In Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind & Spirit, I sometimes thought of my role as that of a midwife or a matchmaker—someone who goes between the world of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology and the world of the American Museum of Natural History. Because as you know, this exhibit is a collaboration between these two museums and so my task was to work with my co-curator Dr. Nguyen Van Huy in developing the ideas for the exhibit and then ethnologists on his staff would work collecting, planning, developing and then I would arrive and we would discuss what was appropriate for an exhibition in the Big Apple. They would educate me about the key points in the particular journey they were trying to illustrate—what was important, what was right, what was vivid and exciting, they would get me excited about it—and then I would come back and in discussions with the designer and the label writer, we would talk about how to present this as a tangible, three-dimensional exhibit that our public in the U.S.A. could enjoy.
What is especially important or unique about Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind & Spirit?
There are many things that are especially unique and important about Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind & Spirit. First of all, this is the first presentation of Vietnamese culture as it is in the present tense to an American public. It's the first major cultural statement about Vietnam that Americans have seen since 1975 and I believe very strongly that meeting Vietnam as it is today thirty years after the war—we've all grown, we've all changed—is an absolutely critical step to healing, to bringing closure, to moving on.
Second, as I've said, this is a collaboration. This is a Vietnamese museum and an American museum working together on something neither of us could have done by ourselves. My colleagues in Vietnam have the scholarly expertise and the superb collections that we're exhibiting, AMNH has its experience in putting together world-class exhibitions that are beautiful, informative, and fun. Something else that's very special about this exhibit although perhaps less unique, is that by presenting culture in the present tense, we're helping people to understand culture as a living, changing thing. Culture, to be alive, is constantly bringing in new material. Whether that means that the ancestors now get votive paper offerings in the shape of motorbikes and Peugeot bicycles and electric rice pots, or whether that means that in the Mid-Autumn festival, when they parade in masks some of those masks look a little bit like Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and some characters from Japanese animated cartoons that my son recognizes but I don't.
Could you tell us about some of your experiences in Vietnam?
Some of my best moments in Vietnam have included the opportunity to work with the Vietnamese ethnologists. and sometimes the people we have interviewed have also been excited about the exhibit and have been even more willing to talk with us.
There is a gracious elderly woman who lives in the old quarter of Hanoi. Ba Mien is a relative of one of the members of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology staff, a woman who is working with us here now in New York. Lan Huong thought that Ba Mien, her grandmother's sister, would be willing to show us the ancestral altar in her home—it's a very traditional, very elaborate altar—and we wanted to study it because we wanted to try to replicate an altar in the exhibit. So she kindly allowed us to come into her home. On several occasions she allowed us to take measurements and photographs, and she explained the arrangement and the customs of her family to us. Then this was supremely special: On New Year's Eve night we wanted to do some documentation in downtown Hanoi. We didn't think that we would be able go inside anyone's home because we understood that New Year's Eve is a very special family time. In particular, the first person who steps over the threshold has to be a lucky person—someone with a good, happy, virtuous life, that the family chooses. It's not a time when a lot of outsiders come in with their cameras and their measuring tapes and their tape recorders and so on.
We were meeting Lan Huong and her husband and we were going to the lake to interview people who were there to celebrate. We had some good conversations with all kinds of people, but then as midnight approached she said, Come on, we're going to the house in the old quarter. They've invited us to pass the new year with them. And we had to hurry because we had to get in before midnight so that the designated lucky person could come in. And I was very touched to be taken into a family's celebration, to share those moments when the year's luck was set, and our hostess was so gracious, she said, We feel that we will have an especially lucky new year because we shared it with you.
In the exhibit, you can see a film of the wedding of Lan Huong's cousin in Ba Mien's house.
In what ways is contemporary Vietnamese society different from its past?
All societies are different from their pasts because a culture that's alive is constantly in motion. One point the Vietnamese would like to make in representing their society is that it is a multiethnic society. The Vietnamese state recognizes 54 distinct ethnicities. Organizations like the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology are working to preserve and inculcate respect for minority cultures. That's at the level of serious scholarship. At the level of popular culture you see things like ethnic chic in some of the boutiques.
Another thing about Vietnamese society today of course has been the transition to the market economy. It's a very dynamic place. Every time I go to Hanoi it's a little bit different. There are new enterprises, there are more motorbikes on the streets, more things are possible. I went to Vietnam first in 1991. It was already in the era of economic renovation, the free market had begun, but it was a very poor and very quiet place. It was, I think, the poorest place I'd ever been and it was very isolated. It was very difficult to send a fax, most offices didn't have them. It was difficult to make a telephone call to the United States.
Now, fast forward to the late 1990s when we began work on Vietnam: Journeys. This is an exhibit that was aided and abetted by the internet. We were in electronic communication daily with our colleagues in Hanoi, an issue would come up and an image would be jpeg'ed and sent either from Hanoi to New York or New York to Hanoi, questions would be answered, decisions would be made, we were all connected.
How does this exhibition approach the Vietnam War?
As I said, the exhibit is about healing, it's about showing how we've all moved on. We wanted this to be a portrayal of Vietnamese culture—we wanted people to know Vietnam as a country, not a war. I appreciate the concern of many Vietnamese Americans that their culture, their home culture, is only known to people in the United States as a place where there was a war. So we wanted to handle the war lightly. We didn't want everything to disappear in a dark cloud of war, which could happen if we conjured up the emotions people my age had at the time, whether they were pro or whether they were anti, whether they fought or whether they were out on the streets demonstrating.
At the same time we recognize that the intensity of Vietnam War era experiences and memories brings many of our visitors to the exhibit—it's the common touchstone that Americans of a certain age have. We couldn't do the show and pretend that the war didn't exist, that would be totally dishonest. We touch on the war in the entry to the exhibit, we touch on the war with the sense of then-and-now. Our photo researchers were lucky enough to find photographs from Hue, a city that saw heavy fighting during the Tet offensive in 1968. And you see a street of rubble, you see people looking shocked standing on the street, and then miracle of miracles, the photographer went back to that same street in 2000, photographed it, and you see it's a recognizable street. It's all freshly painted, the road is nicely paved, you see someone zipping by on a motorbike—it's Vietnam today.
We have a timeline, and the war is in that timeline, but it's in that timeline for a very specific purpose. To show how this was one episode in the long rich cultural history of Vietnam, and it's a history that has included heroic resistance to many foreign invasions.
Then, we touch on the war as it touches on the present. We have a section in the exhibit on life journeys including the journey from life to death and funerals portrayed as journeys. We have a large collection of votive paper—paper goods that are made and burned for the dead so that the dead will have their television sets, and the dead will be clothed, and the dead will have their kitchen equipment and so on in their other life—and we mention the man who made much of this votive paper. He was himself a war veteran, and he tells his story. He says many people might think of making votive paper for the dead as a very inauspicious enterprise, but he considers himself the luckiest man alive. He came back from the war and many did not, he came back in one piece, and many did not, he came back to find his parents still alive, many did not, and he met his wife on the Ho Chi Minh trail. He was transporting things, she was one of the women volunteers who kept the trail open. In both of these occupations there were heavy casualties and neither of them expected to survive and marry each other. But they are happily married and living in a four-generation family. He says, I've seen love stories in movies—mine is a real love story.
So we touch on that, the war as personal history, and then in the emotional heart of the show we show how Vietnamese care for the dead, how important for the Kinh (the Vietnamese majority group) and for several of the other minorities the ancestors are. The ancestors look out for you and protect you and you tend them, you feed them, you provide them with goods in the form of paper votives. We describe how really devastating it is when the dead cannot be tended either because they have no living relatives or because they died in battle far from home—their bones can't be collected and washed and put in a reburial coffin and set in an auspicious place. And to mark this, we show a reburial coffin but it's empty and we dedicate this space to all of the dead—civilian and military, Vietnamese and foreign—who fell in Vietnam's wars of the 20th century. And then we set out the kinds of offerings that Vietnamese set out for wandering ghosts, those who aren't properly tended: incense and a few roses, in a vase, you see this all over Vietnam. And then on the wall there's a bit of classic poetry commemorating war dead—not the dead of the second Indochina war (what we call the Vietnam War or what's sometimes called the American War), but war dead in general. And we bring concerns that Americans recognize, concerns for MIAs, the tremendous effort that has been invested in retrieving the remains of Americans missing in action, and show how these concerns are shared—how they're very deep concerns in Vietnamese culture. And we allow for a certain moment of common grieving.
How has working with the Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology enhanced this show?
Working with the Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology (the VME) has done a lot more than merely enhance this show—there would be no show if we weren't working closely with the VME. Not only in terms of the objects that are in the exhibit from the VME collections, some of them collected specifically for the stories we want to tell in this exhibit, but for all of the intellectual content as well. The themes of this exhibit were developed in brainstorming sessions between VME staff and members of the AMNH community. We've worked together on all aspects from the conceptualizing to the collecting to the developing of label copy.
Just yesterday I was in the gallery and the preparators were getting ready to install the offerings that are brought from the family of the groom to the family of the bride on the wedding day. We have from VME some lovely red lacquer boxes that are meant to transport these goods, but since we're showing this as living culture, Mrs. Mai, the collections manager from VME was setting up the offerings and we had cake boxes and tea boxes and liquor boxes and bottles. These were all being wrapped in pretty paper and tied with bows and she was being assisted by a couple other members of the VME staff, it was all women, and everybody had ideas about where the bow should go and how the paper should be arranged. And they were exercising as much concern, as much effort as if it were for their own family member's wedding. And they were doing it for the exhibit. I was very touched. The result also is gorgeous.
What is your favorite thing about this exhibition? How is it special?
Well I think I've touched on the specialness already. It's special because we are working so closely together, it's special because we have been able through our work with VME to bring a high degree of ethnographic richness, and a richness that exists in the contemporary. We wanted to show an initiation of the Yao people, a young man's journey to adult status, and not only did our colleagues at VME go out and collect the material and do a lot of interviews so we have some first-person quotes, but they also made a wonderful visual document and we're able to work with our AV people in reducing the hours and hours of footage into a very sharp, very crisp little media moment. It's not just an initiation in the abstract. We meet Lee Van Hop, the young man of 14 who has to pitch himself backward off a ladder and be caught in a net. We see him moving through the ceremony, through that moment, and to the conclusion where he returns in triumph, successfully initiated.
We don't get that kind of depth, that kind of personal contact in the average ethnographic show. This is special, it sets a new standard for us I think and one that we can only do with colleagues who are very close to the field situation.
Another thing that's special is that in a lot of these ethnographic moments, people have gone into their own homes and communities. We have, for example, a Thai wedding documented again in another media moment, and the ethnologist was the uncle of the bride. So this is very special access.
What ideas do you hope visitors will take away with them after they leave the exhibition?
When they leave the exhibition I hope that to the degree that they came to this exhibition with images of Vietnam at war, images of helicopters, images of body bags, they'll go away with a sense that Vietnam connotes some other things as well, that it will connote a very rich cultural tapestry. I hope they also come away with a notion that Vietnam is a multiethnic society, and I hope that they come away with a broader refined sense of culture as a living, changing thing, as something that has very playful elements. It reaches out to include the plastic Hello Kitty lantern that beeps out the theme of Love Story that has been very seamlessly incorporated into a traditional celebration of the Mid-Autumn festival.