Pandemic Reads 18 & 19

Museums, Memory, and the Bronx

I’m working through the books which I’ve been carrying across the country over the past several months. Soon I’m moving to Colorado and getting my second dose of vaccine. Though COVID has not disappeared here or elsewhere in the world, I’m retiring the title “Pandemic Reads”. Hopefully I can make reading and recommending books a more regular part of my life.

What do I think about reviewing 19 books during a pandemic year? I feel like a determined reader could read two or three books in a month and be very thoughtful on GoodReads. So I under-developed this; I watched too much TV and read too many thinkpieces. Also I’ve been reading a heavy book on FDR and the Supreme Court for a while now. It’s not going to make this post, but it will be finished another day.

The largest Cambodian enclave of New York is in the Bronx. Tang refers back to his experiences as a community organizer and sociology researcher to explain the living history of this community.
On arrival to the US, Cambodian refugees were subject to the perceptions of white America — the ‘model minority’ bar for Asian and Asian-Americans, and the stereotype of refugee exceptionalism. There was not enough prescience to realize that refugees from wars in Southeast Asia would have unique struggles in settling and finding jobs in cities. In Cambodia’s case, so many leaders and intellectuals had been killed by the Khmer Rouge, that their communities lacked the highly-skilled or highly-connected few who could help with resettlement. Organizers moved them from apartment to apartment during the era of ‘the Bronx is burning’. Their landlords knew the refugees did not exercise their rights and organizations would buy large blocks of low-cost units, so they were placed in the worst conditions.

The author adopts another sociologist’s term ‘hyperghetto’ for the impoverished areas of the Bronx. This term was new to me — this book is one of the top search results for it — and though there might be an intellectual point for it to describe urban poverty and policing, I can’t understand why it’s used.

The book explains the resettlement process, the negative effects of 90s welfare reform / ‘workfare’, and the nature of activism. We get the context, the rationale, and a modern-day take. For example, Tang recalls his initial work to support translators and equal treatment in the workfare programs, and how this falls short of his current vision to challenge neoliberalism.

This was a great untold/under-told story. On readability, I would recommend this to someone involved in sociology or housing development. For a more accessible read you can check out Mekong NYC and Critical Refugee Studies. Though you can’t directly compare the experiences, I’d also recommend the graphic novel The Best We Could Do about the Vietnamese resettlement and immigration experience.

The founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Lonnie Bunch III, tells the story of building and opening the museum. He brings the reader along through negotiations on Capitol Hill, meet-and-greets with scholars, and the history and office politics unique to the Smithsonian.

The museum (NMAAHC) took a century to realize. Bunch credits Civil War veterans at the 50th anniversary of the war as the first to push Congress to recognize Black soldiers’ contributions. In the late 20th century the proposal would re-emerge and get shut down multiple times. Once vague legislation passed, the Smithsonian began searching for a small team to lead the new museum through a website and site selection process. No one knew how many years it might take to see the project through, especially if they made a push for a spot on the National Mall. Though multiple sites were considered, George W. Bush signing the bill and announcing the museum would be on the Mall stopped Congress from dragging their feet or burying the museum in politics. This is one reason that Bush was so welcomed at the museum’s opening, despite not being popular among Black voters.

Even within the Smithsonian, the new museum was not all smooth sailing. Other museum directors feared losing their collections of African-American history, bureaucrats stalled at giving them their own museum IDs and technology contracts (the book has a shout out to Ruby on Rails!). Other museums across the country, which had held leadership positions in the African-American museum world while Congress had stalled, now were having intense discussions about how a national museum in DC would affect them.

You might wonder if a rare experience like opening a museum can be a relatable story. I saw a lot to learn about the fundraising process, when to micromanage, how to make a high-stakes ask, hiring and firing, and promoting your idea when it still lacks presence (a museum without a building). Bunch is also candid about heated discussions, and regrets big and small, during the project.

With Bunch now directing the whole Smithsonian (since 2019), a careful reader might predict how he will approach the Women’s History Museum and National Museum of the American Latino, which were approved by Congress at the end of 2020.

Also bonus: if you’ve been reading my book reviews — the title A Fool’s Errand is borrowed from the reconstruction-era book by Tourgée, the lawyer involved in Plessy v. Ferguson! Connections.

This book is pre-pandemic, and the Smithsonian is free, so this isn’t directly connected. But a long time ago, I worked at the Museum of Modern Art (NYC), so a) I’ve wanted to go back into museum edu / dev world, and b) I want to stress how museums and their staff have been terribly affected by the pandemic. If you have a favorite local museum, I’d encourage you to buy gifts on their website to supplement limited aid, and plan a visit as one of your first back-to-normal activities.

Here are some interesting stories about museums over the past months:

Conference videos featuring the world’s leading museums, chaired by new museums in Abu Dhabi:

The Museum of the Palestinian People in DC has a membership (Resilience Club) for donors to help them reopen to the public:

Planet Word, a museum on language which opened in 2020:

The Louvre (and other online collections in comments)

Pandemic aside, 2020–21 has led to museums doing some soul-searching about who attends and who leads:

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