MANY MUSEUMS, especially art museums, have a radiant quality, ablaze with their riches. They grant us visits with their collections, even suggesting that those of us who visit are the worthier for having passed through their portals. The Met, the Louvre, the Rijksmuseum, the National Gallery—these are the names that immediately come to my mind.
Museums of history have a different mission: Don’t forget what happened, they seem to command. It’s not a scold, exactly, but I always have the feeling that there will be a quiz at the exit and that I will be too dazed to pass. I’m thinking of the House of Terror in Budapest, Schindler’s Factory Museum in Krakow, the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum in Kiev, even the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC. Pay attention!
The Museum of Chinese in America, located in New York City’s Chinatown, seems a bit different, its goals more specific. To start with, it seems to be speaking, with some urgency, to its own community, or rather to Chinese Americans spread across the US, whether in Chinatowns or deeply embedded in the American mainstream. Those are the people being urged not to forget.
To me it presents itself as more a family scrapbook than a curated collection set out with a greater public in mind. And therein lies its charm. Imagine that your great-grandmother left a trunk of ephemera—family pictures, flyers from the summer carnival, a Sears catalogue marked up with her fantasy purchases (remember it was called the Wish Book for a reason). You’ve discovered the trunk and now get to sift dreamily through the finds. Heaven, right?
You may not be Chinese or Chinese American, but you can share in the charm of a few pages dedicated to the Eight-Pound Livelihood. It’s pictures from the turn of the last century of Chinese workers in hand laundries, the classic Chinese American business since the 1850s.
And the term “Eight-Pound Livelihood”? I thought perhaps it referred to the weight of a load of laundry. Wrong. That was the weight of those heavy flat irons used to press out the wrinkles in the clothing of California families and rough-edged railway workers and hardscrabble gold miners.
While the museum’s website doesn’t offer any slick interactive exhibits, it does lay out images from its exhibits over the 40 years since its founding. As the Museum itself says, it is redefining the American narrative one story at a time.