American, and Indian: a new Smithsonian exhibition celebrates 300 years of achievement

Opening in the Smithsonian is Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation, the first major exhibition in the US to examine the history of Indian immigration and the influence of Indian-Americans.

John F Kennedy, left, and Lyndon B Johnson flanking Congressman Dalip Singh Saund in 1958 - and image from Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation, an exhibition detailing the history of Indian-Americans and their contributions to the United States. Courtesy Eric Saund / Smithsonian
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Indian-Americans are doctors, engineers, motel owners, taxi drivers and spelling bee champs – just a few takeaways from a new exhibition at the Smithsonian.

On closer inspection, though, curators are looking behind the cultural stereotypes of this population of 3.3 million Americans in a new exhibition that opens tomorrow in Washington DC.

The influx of Indian doctors, for example, began in the 1960s, as the United States sought physicians for its new Medicare system. The American inventors of Hotmail, the Pentium chip and fibre optics were all of Indian origin, engineers whose visas were part of the US effort to win the Cold War.

Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation is the Smithsonian’s first major exhibition to examine the history of Indian immigration to the US and the influence of Indian-Americans.

It’s a story that dates to the first Indians arriving in 1790, who helped build the nation’s railroads and farms – and fought for citizenship when immigration from Asia was discouraged. There are also plenty of more recent contributions of leading Indian-American writers, entertainers and athletes – plus a fashion designer favoured by the first lady Michelle Obama.

The curator Masum Momaya says her team used Indian-American stereotypes as an entry point for visitors to learn more. “We want to take people beyond some of the things they know and have seen in popular culture to the deeper and more nuanced history,” she says. “I think one of the things that museums can do is add history and add context to contemporary conversations about race and immigration.”

In a subtle way, the show’s curators demonstrate that the current debate over immigration has been debated before.

The Smithsonian borrowed and collected objects from many Indian-Americans, from family photos and shoes that evoke a family home to the professional football helmet worn by the first Indian-American to win the Super Bowl, Brandon Chillar with the Green Bay Packers.

For more than a year, curators worked to borrow a dress made by the Indian-American designer Naeem Khan for Obama. The rarely seen gown joins items from other groundbreaking Indian-Americans, from a silver Olympic medal won by the gymnast Mohini Bhardwaj in Athens to the first US spelling bee trophy won by an Indian-American in 1985. Coincidentally, Indian-American students have been on a spelling bee winning streak for most of the past decade.

“It does speak to that experience of becoming American,” says Konrad Ng, the director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. “Spelling bees have this symbolic value – of being literate in the language and excelling in it.”

The year-long exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History is part of a US$2 million (Dh7.35m) continuing heritage project at the centre. Newly acquired artefacts include campaign materials from the US Representative Dalip Singh Saund, the first Asian-American elected to Congress in 1957.

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