A Vietnam Journey

A journey is a bridge between two points. In Vietnam, some journeys take place on roads, highways, railways, rivers, and footpaths as family members come home for the New Year, hunters travel into the forest and city dwellers carry precariously balanced goods on bicycles and motorbikes. Other journeys are metaphorical: Life is a journey marked by significant rituals, and the year is a journey mapped by a calendar. Souls travel to the netherworld, while gods and ancestors return to the human world during celebrations in their honor.

The creation of Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, and Spirit (AMNH 2003) marked the beginning of a new journey: the first major collaboration between a Vietnamese museum and an American museum on an exhibition of Vietnamese cultures. The exhibit, born of a mutual interest in moving beyond the legacy of the Vietnamese/American War, delves into a deeper portrayal of daily Vietnamese life at the start of the twenty-first century.

Exhibit and Planning

Every stage of the creation of this exhibit was meant to be a learning process. The American Museum of Natural History could not have produced an exhibition on Vietnam without the partnership of the Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology (VME), and at the time, VME was in its first decade as an institution and eager for training in several aspects of museum work. While AMNH curators learned about life in contemporary Vietnam and how to translate it into an exhibit, and VME curators learned about the process of mounting an international exhibition; the exhibit was entirely conceived of and designed by AMNH and VME together.

This involved a lot of journeying for both AMNH and VME staff. With the generous support of the Ford Foundation, Nguyễn Thị Thu Hương would spend more than two years with us, participating in all aspects of exhibit planning and acting as liaison between the two museums while she pursued an MA degree in Museum Anthropology at Columbia University. She was in place to translate and act as culture broker for several other VME colleagues who spent short internships working on the exhibit implementation and participating in our opening conference. This was also an opportunity for Vietnamese and our Vietnamese American interns and volunteers to meet and work together. Many of us from AMNH travelled to VME for planning meetings and for workshops on conservation, exhibit design and lighting, public relations, and museum education.

Exhibit Catalogue and Subsequent Research Projects

The subsequent volume, Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, and Spirit, co-edited by Nguyen Van Huy (Director, VME) and myself was designed to accompany and detail the various journeys found in the exhibit. The content and the selection of illustrations were similarly collaborative. Through Nguyễn Thị Thu Hương’s translations, I worked closely with the VME authors to make certain that their meanings had survived translation and that they were comfortable with my edits.

As the Vietnam exhibit came to a close in March 2004, the journey did not end. I have since collaborated with Huy and VME on several research projects. One research project explored how sacred objects were made, made sacred, handled, de-sanctified, and properly disposed of, particularly when donated to museums. Because VME was a young museum, VME researchers, Huy, and I were able to interview those who had either donated to or made for the Museum. This was a team effort involving six different research projects, an opportunity to share information across the institution. Once again, I worked closely with the Vietnamese authors through a careful process of translating, editing, and back translating. Their collective work was published in a special issue of Asian Ethnology. It also sparked my own longstanding interest in "sacred stuff in the market" (see section). The sacred objects project was followed by research on Catholic Culture in Vietnam for a VME exhibit and a joint publication on the marketing Catholic Statues and their illicit entry into the antiquities market. Thereafter, on Dr. Huy’s invitation, I was invited to work with Women’s Museum of Vietnam on an exhibit on the Mother Goddess Religion of Vietnam, following our Vietnam Journeys model of joint planning, research, and training.