[Mb-civic] NYTimes.com Article: In Imperfect Compromise, Exhibit Tells of Vietnam Era

swiggard at comcast.net swiggard at comcast.net
Tue Sep 7 04:31:32 PDT 2004

The article below from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by swiggard at comcast.net.

Interesting show in CA about Vietnam. Is anyone there planning to go? How about a review for the group, including those of us Out East?

swiggard at comcast.net

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In Imperfect Compromise, Exhibit Tells of Vietnam Era

September 7, 2004


OAKLAND, Calif., Sept. 5 - Even as the presidential
campaign remains steeped in a debate about John Kerry's
military service in Vietnam, another highly charged dispute
over the Vietnam War has been resolved - albeit imperfectly
- between Vietnamese-Americans and a prominent museum here.

An exhibit, "What's Going On? California in the Era of
Vietnam," opened late last month at the Oakland Museum of
California and is scheduled to run through February before
traveling to Los Angeles and Chicago. Five years in the
making, it tells the wartime story of California during the
1960's and 70's, ripping at wounds among the state's
swelling Vietnamese-American population. 

The exhibit's content was significantly changed to reflect
the complaints and sensitivities of Vietnamese living in
California, particularly those from the war's losing side
in the south, who feared the displays would give their
viewpoint and experiences short shrift. Some 80 percent of
the more than one million Vietnamese in the United States
came from South Vietnam, the United States' ally. 

"For museums, this is very unusual," Dennis Power, the
Oakland museum's executive director, said of the long and
often difficult negotiations over the exhibit. 

The two sides debated things like space allotments,
terminology and how much attention to give Ho Chi Minh, the
leader of Communist North Vietnam. Under pressure from the
Vietnamese-Americans, the museum left out his picture. 

The exhibit, which cost $1.9 million and encompasses 7,000
square feet, presents a kaleidoscopic view of California
during the Vietnam era. It covers topics like the free
speech and antiwar movements of the 1960's and the arrival
of the first Vietnamese refugees in 1975 at the end of the

Marcia Eymann, the museum's curator, first thought of the
exhibit after noticing scrawled messages from American
soldiers on walls at Oakland's Army base, where artifacts
from the museum are stored. 

Last year, the museum hired Mimi Nguyen, its first
Vietnamese researcher, whose abbreviated tenure at the
museum reflected the deep emotions and often tumultuous
negotiations that surrounded the exhibit. 

Ms. Nguyen lobbied to include artifacts from the
re-education camps, where hundreds of thousands of South
Vietnamese were imprisoned after the war. "It's about
historical accuracy and just giving voice to primary
sources,'' she said, "to people who have lived and

She pushed for displays that depict the fall of Saigon in
1975 and the thousands of Vietnamese maimed in the war.
When she learned that the museum was buying a Vietcong
uniform through eBay, Ms. Nguyen argued for the display of
a South Vietnamese uniform as well. 

She became a persistent critic. Last October, she wrote a
scathing memorandum, accusing the museum of simplifying and
sanitizing the war. One week later, Ms. Nguyen, who had
earlier received e-mail messages from superiors praising
her work, was fired. 

Mr. Power said Ms. Nguyen had not been fired because of her
views, but he declined to discuss the reasons. An online
petition, signed by about 500 Vietnamese worldwide,
protested the firing but failed to have her reinstated. A
Vietnamese-American graduate student hired to replace Ms.
Nguyen quit after six months, telling The San Francisco
Chronicle at the time that he would be uncomfortable taking
his parents to the exhibit as it was then planned. 

Ms. Eymann, the curator, said Ms. Nguyen's memo reflected
"the frustration of a broader community that feels it's
been ignored." In January, Ms. Eymann sought out the
leaders of the petition drive and asked for their help,
eventually creating an advisory group of Southeast Asians. 

"They had been arrogant, insensitive and elitist," said
Joseph Dovinh, a Vietnamese-American who wrote the online
petition and became the head of the advisory group. 

In the ensuing months, the museum's outreach efforts
included paying for leaders among Vietnamese in Southern
California to fly to Oakland for meetings. 

The advisory group members insisted that the exhibit refer
to Vietnamese-Americans as refugees, not immigrants,
because they fled their country for political, not
economic, reasons. The museum agreed. 

They also wanted their story to be threaded through the
exhibit, not isolated in one display. The museum agreed to
post written accounts in the exhibit's 11 display areas. 

The group also requested a display depicting the suffering
of the Vietnamese people with graphic images, like a
photograph of a pile of skulls. The museum refused to
display the photos, but placed them in a binder in an
alcove next to the exhibit. 

"We were pushing for about 30 percent of the space," Mr.
Dovinh said. "We were satisfied with something closer to 20
percent. Ultimately, we got about 15 percent." 

Not everyone is happy with the exhibit. For example, some
complain about a display of baby clothes from Operation
Babylift, in which 2,600 "orphans" were flown out of
Vietnam and placed with American families. Nothing is said
about the Vietnamese mothers who sought the return of their
children but were blocked by American courts. 

Sonny Le, a consultant to the museum and the communications
director of the East Meets West Foundation, which provides
humanitarian assistance to Vietnam, said the exhibit was
the best compromise possible. 

"This is as good as it can get," he said. "The inhumanity
and destruction of war should have been shoved down our
throat. But if you do that, people won't go to see it." 

But Richard Griffoul, the museum's director of marketing
and communications, acknowledged that the final result was
not good enough for many Vietnamese-Americans. 

He said, "This is not the exhibit they want and need"



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