Contributions to American culture by Indian Americans are highlighted in “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation,” an exhibition by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center opening Feb. 27 at the National Museum of Natural History.
With seven sections occupying 5,000 square feet, there’s a bigness to the exhibition reflecting the size of the subcontinent, and more than 200 years of history. Photos, art and artifacts will explore the muscle Indian Americans put into the nation’s railroads and infrastructure, their professional concentrations and achievements, and cultural, religious and civil rights highlights.
“We wanted a title that people have a reference for, but this is not about Bollywood,” says curator Masum Momaya. “The exhibition is going to take you beyond what you know about Indians and Indian Americans,” though its color and design draw on Bollywood aesthetics. “The main wall colors are mango, magenta and bright plum. . . . Our culture is vibrant, so we wanted the gallery to reflect that.”
A focal point of the exhibition will be a dress by designer Naeem Khan worn by First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House’s Governors Dinner in 2012.
According to the 2010 Census, 17 million people in the United States are of Asian and Pacific Islander descent and by 2050, that it’s expected to be 41 million. Members of the Indian American community approached the Smithsonian about doing an exhibition in 2008, and curators began a concentrated effort to collect Indian American artifacts from around the country. The Smithsonian’s 137 million-object collection had objects from India, but few from Indian Americans.
The exhibition will begin with migrants not only from India, but Indians from the Caribbean, Africa and even South America; a population widely spread throughout the British Empire, of which India was once a part. It includes early immigration history as well as a look at Indian Americans’ concentration as cab drivers, motel and small business owners, doctors and software engineers.
In looking at fields in which Indian Americans are concentrated professionally, “we went for the most stereotypical ones with the idea of dismantling the stereotypes,” Momaya says.
“Arts and Activism” explores Indian Americans contributions to social justice movements, and a section on religion and spirituality looks specifically at yoga. But it will probably be the section on Indian American cultural contributions — food, fashion, dance, music — that will be the most easily recognizable and feel most resonant. A re-creation of a dining table found in an Indian American family home will feature eight place settings with each symbolizing a moment in food history. These includes the first Indian American restaurants, cookbooks and when grocery stores began selling Indian food.
And because so much food history is about family, ritual and lore, the section will have place settings on Thali — the Indian plates that travel well, hold piles of food and last decades. The American dish equivalent, Corelle dinnerware will be on the other side of the table. Indian Americans have “a cultural attraction to Corelle ware,” Momaya enthuses. She still has a set her parents gave her when she went to college. It was inexpensive, durable and families owned “one of three patterns that reminded people of India. Its texture, nuance, emotional resonance. People come in and see it and say wow, I have that same set of dishes in my cupboard today. It’s passing on history in a material sense, but also in terms of memory.”
Khan, who designed Michelle Obama’s one-shouldered, sequin- and crystal-embellished gown, hails from a centuries-long line of garment embroiderers from India's Mughal Courts. Throughout the exhibition, that blending of very old, very traditional hallmarks of Indian culture will show up repeatedly, and in surprising ways, in American history and iconography.
“I see this exhibition as American history, not just Indian American history,” says Momaya. “There are so many parallels.”
opening Feb. 27 runs through Feb., 2015 at the National Museum of Natural History, 10th St. and Constitution Ave. NW, Washington. 202-633-1000. www.mnh.si.edu.
● The Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore is on a roll — albeit a traditional roll, tinged with traces of British aristocracy. Coming off heightened interest in bicentennial commemorations of the War of 1812, it is lending the original Francis Scott Key “Star-Spangled Banner” manuscript to the National Museum of American History for two weeks in June, where it will be displayed, for the first time, with the flag that inspired its creation. An Feb. 6 lecture, “The Artistic Legacy of the Calverts and Arundells in England and America,” promises to add texture and meaning to historic Maryland names many of us know only as exits off the highway. The “Bootleggers Bash: Rebooted” offers a chance to dress up in Prohibition-era clothing, swill beerand celebrate Maryland history. The Historical Society keeps up with the costuming by sponsoring a March 1 bus trip to Winterthur Museum Garden and Library outside Wilmington, Del., to view original costumes from the hit series “Downton Abbey.” The Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument Street, Baltimore, 410-685-3750. www.mdhs.org.
● The Heurich House Museum in Dupont Circle was the residence of local brewer and philanthropist Christian Heurich and is regarded as one of the most intact Victorian houses in the country. It closes yearly in January for maintenance and cleaning of the original furnishings and decorations, but will reopen Feb. 1 . A March launch for the book “Capital Beer” about the city’s beer history features beer tasting. In partnership with the In Series Opera, a salon-style concert, “The Romantics: Schubert and Goethe,” on April 11 and 12 focuses on early German romanticism. And it marks the first public concert using the museum’s hand-painted 1901 Steinway, given to Mrs. Heurich by Mr. Heurich after the birth of their son. The Heurich House Museum, 1307 New Hampshire, Ave. NW, Washington. 202-429-1894. www.heurichhouse.org.
●The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art exhibition “M onuments Men: On the Frontline to Save Europe’s Art, 1942-1946,” will be displayed from Feb. 7 to April 20 at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture. Through photographs, official records, maps and audio interviews, it details the efforts by a special U.S. Army unit of curators, scholars, architects, librarians, and archivists from the U.S. and Britain — Monuments Men — to locate and recover major artworks stolen by the Nazis. With a Hollywood blockbuster of the same name as a tie-in, interest in these compelling pieces of World War II history will be high. “Monuments Men: On the Frontline to Save Europe’s Art, 1942-1946” is open Feb. 7 through April 20 at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, 8th and F streets NW, Washington. 202-633-7940. www.aaa.si.edu.
●In 2012, natural disasters affected 32 states at a cost of over $100 billion and drew increasing attention to the urgency for builders and planners to help mitigate their effects. The “Designing for Disaster” exhibition opening May 11 at the National Building Museum examines the risks from natural hazards and ways to design and build safer, more disaster-resilient communities. The objects, multimedia and graphics of this exhibition will look at a range of responses to earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and floods. It will show homes on unprotected coastal wetlands, along with disaster-resistant housing and facilities the exhibition Web site says are designed to deal with at least one hazard in an “exemplary,” “pragmatic” and, in some cases, beautiful way. “Designing for Disaster” opens May 11 at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW, Washington. 202-272-2448. www.nbm.org.
●This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. In keeping with examinations of art and stewardship in last year’s “Earth Matters” exhibition, “Visions From the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone” opens April 9. The exhibition of objects from regions typically associated with conflict and war refocuses attention on the peoples and cultures of the region, highlighting long histories of artwork in wood, ivory, stone, metal and textiles. “Visions From the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone” runs April 9 through August 17 at the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW., Washington. 202-633-4600. africa.si.edu.
●And just because its too irresistible to slide (or wiggle) under the radar, the Maryland Institute College of Art exhibition “Workin’ the Tease: The Art of Baltimore Burlesque” promises a little springtime fancy. Opening April 22 and running through May 7, it examines the evolution of Baltimore burlesque — a combination of slapstick humor, dance and striptease — from its early 20th-century club roots to its current underground culture status, which includes “queerlesque” by members of the LGBT community and “boylesque,” performed by males. The exhibition includes posters, costumes and props, along with performers such as Paco Fish, Short Staxx and Tapitha Kix. “Workin’ the Tease,” April 22 through May 7 at the Maryland Institute College of Art, 1300 W. Mount Royal Ave., Baltimore. 410-669-9200. www.mica.edu.