Dr. Mausum Momaya, the curator for the Smithsonian's Indian American Heritage Project, is the brains behind the highly-anticipated "Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape The Nation" exhibition that opens this week in Washington D.C. The exhibition is a first for the Smithsonian-- highlighting the Indian American diaspora. We talked with Momaya earlier about her preperation and excitement for the exhibit.
How did the exhibit come about?
In 2008, Indian American community members from the DC area approached the leadership of the Smithsonian saying that they would like to see something that reflects the history of Indians in America at the museums. Richard Kurin, the Under Secretary for History Art, and Culture at the Smithsonian had lived and worked in India and also had experience with Indian-focused exhibits, so he understood and valued Indian culture and heritage. A partnership was created between the Smithsonian and the Indian American community, such that, if the latter could raise some money, the Smithsonian would also contribute and push forward. Thus, the Indian American Heritage Project and the exhibition, Beyond Bollywood was born.
What has your role been in creating this exhibition?
I am the curator of the exhibition, meaning that I formulate the exhibition concept and themes, research and write content for it, reach out to and respond to queries from possible contributors, lenders and donors; and serve as a spokesperson and tour guide for it with the media and the public at-large. To prepare the exhibition, I worked with two exhibition designers, a registrar and exhibits developer (who cared for the art and the objects), two development (fundraising) specialists, several marketing/PR staff, legal and administrative staff who helped secure rights and permissions, and several handfuls of people who printed the graphics, built cases for objects, framed and mounted artwork and installed everything in the gallery. Also, there were academic and community-based advisors from around the country who provided input throughout the project.
What does this exhibition mean to you as a South Asian-American?
I self-identify in many ways: as South Asian American, an Indian American, a daughter of immigrants, a feminist, a person living with a disability and a person who feels strongly about injustice associated with class privilege in the United States and globally. These identities are intersectional for me, rather than be a laundry list that I can separate in my daily experience. Working on this exhibition affirmed that some of my identity has been shaped through living as a South Asian-American, but much of it has been shaped by other factors. It has also strongly affirmed a quote from the exhibition for me: “Indian Americans are as diverse as America itself.”
That being said, working on this exhibition as a South Asian American has been a way for me to honor the experiences of the different living South Asian American generations. For my parents and their generation, I hope the exhibition honors the journeys they’ve taken and the struggles they’ve endured to build lives for themselves and us in this country – to give us the strong foundation that made so many things possible in our lives. For our generation, I hope this exhibition reinforces the idea that we have an amazing heritage that we don’t have to leave behind in order to belong and that this drawing upon of different identities is fundamental to being an American. And for children and young people, I hope this exhibition show them that their roots here are deep, nuanced and extend far beyond stereotypes.
What do you think will shock visitors the most about this exhibition?
I think visitors will be surprised to learn that the first person of Indian origin to set foot on Indian soil came in 1790-- just 14 years after this country was founded. Early Indian immigrants in the 1800s and 1900s built the railroads, worked in lumber mills, established small businesses & trade links with South Asia and labored on and later owned farms, some of which are still owned by the same families five and six generations later. For me, and I hope for others, this history sheds new light on contemporary debates about patriotism and who is American.
What was the most challenging thing about putting this exhibition together?
Deciding what to include was the most challenging aspect of the exhibition as we encountered so many meaningful stories, wonderful photographs, telling documents and resonant artifacts. We selected artifacts, art, objects and images that exemplified the contributions that Indian immigrants and Indian Americans have made to the U.S. and that that tell a larger story in and of themselves. In this way, curating is as much an art as a science, adding and taking out things and stepping back to see the larger whole. Also, it’s my belief that an exhibition isn’t finished when it opens to the public but rather just the beginning of an expanding and extended sharing that lives in the gallery, in social media, in classrooms and at dining tables through conversations. As the Smithsonian, we also see this exhibition as a first step rather than a definitive account.
Do you see this exhibit as the start of something bigger for the South Asian community?
Yes! In addition to showing at the Smithsonian for over a year, Beyond Bollywood will travel around the country for five years thereafter. When it travels, we hope that local communities will expand the exhibition with their own stories, photographs, art and artifacts. This is as important in “enclaves” like Edison, New Jersey as it is in small towns and rural communities across the United States. Today, sharing stories isn’t just the purview of museums and cultural institutions. With the increased affordability of various technologies and tools and the spread of social media, more and more people can participate, and we hope this inspires South Asian communities to tell stories in their own voices and communities. We also hope that through Beyond Bollywood, non-South Asian Americans get to know better their South Asian American neighbors, friends, co-workers and classmates.