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American Identity at New-York Historical Society

Published on
October 7

What does it mean to be an American? This question may sound like something you were asked in your fifth grade Civics class. But really, this question is one that many Americans continue to struggle with. We are an incredibly diverse nation, with a wide variety of conflicting views, beliefs, and ways of living life. What exactly is it about being American that unites us all despite our differences?

This question finds its home at The New-York Historical Society, which has a mission to serve as a national forum for the discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history. Their newest exhibition, Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion, seeks to provide further fuel to the discussion, chronicling the history of Chinese American relations. The exhibit begins with an introduction from Louise Mirrer, the president, who writes, “We determined to transform our institution into a locus for debate and discussion around the question of what it means to be an American.” One of the biggest strength's of the exhibit is its diversity of modes of presentation. The exhibit included the kind of photographs, artwork, and recreations of historical objects that you might expect to see in a museum. It also included mini dioramas that moved at the push of a button, a giant comic book story telling the history of one particular family’s journey to America, and interactive touch screens providing more information about individuals in internment. One of the most powerful sections was a recreation of an interview with a Chinese man detained at Angel Island. A lone chair sits before an imposing desk, a screen in disguise that displays a variety of documents and commentary written by the investigators. And a recording blasts reenacted voices of the hopeful immigrant and the incredibly thorough and deliberate investigators, asking such detailed questions as “How many rows and houses are there in your village?” I had learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act in school before, but I never understood it so powerfully until visiting this exhibit. And there were many things that I had never known about this aspect of our history: for instance, a massacre in Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1885 that resulted in the death of 28 Chinese Americans and virtually all of their homes and businesses burned down… with no crimes charged. This exhibit is incredibly thought-provoking, and thoughtfully curated.

The museum contains several unique exhibits, each one adding to the diverse collage of what it means to be an American. One interesting exhibit is entirely contained in one small glass case in the lobby – an incredibly rare 1933 Double Eagle coin. These gold coins were made just before President Franklin D. Roosevelt banned the payout of gold, so the majority were melted back into gold bars a few years after being made. Only ten such coins survived destruction – a Mint employee stole a number of them. The coin on display at the New-York Historical Society is the ONLY 1933 Double Eagle that may be legally owned by an individual, and was purchased at an auction for a world record price: $7,590,020. This exhibit could not be simpler: it consists solely of the coin itself and a short blurb about its history. Yet it had a considerable crowd around it when I visited. Even the smallest details of American history contain a great deal of fascinating information about our past.

Ultimately, the New-York Historical Society never answers the question of what it means to be an American. But then again, they never claim to provide the answer. They are an incredibly diverse resource dedicated to helping its visitors ponder the question, engage with a variety of historical materials, and attempt to come to answers of their own. 

Photo Credits

Top Left: Arnold Genthe, Woman and Child, San Francisco Chinatown. Photograph, New-York Historical Society

Bottom Right: 1933 Double Eagle (detail), New-York Historical Society