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New York Museum Presents Comprehensive Exhibition on Vietnamese Life - 2003-03-14

The most comprehensive exhibition on Vietnamese life ever presented in the United States opens at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

These are the sounds of Hanoi, Vietnam, today. They accompany images of colorful streets bustling with bicycles, cars, pedestrians and merchants. They are sights and sounds unfamiliar to many Americans, who associate Vietnam primarily with the war fought there 30 years ago.

Exhibition curator Laurel Kendall says introducing American people to the modern Vietnam, where war is a distant memory, is one of the main goals of the exhibition, Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind & Spirit. "One of the things we have learned from the [American] veterans who have gone back to Vietnam is the absolute importance, for healing, of seeing Vietnam as it is today. We are all 30 years older. Vietnam itself has healed, has changed, and is a very different society from those grainy images we used to see on our television screens," she says.

One section of the exhibit features a series of images of Vietnam taken recently, side by side with those taken 30 years ago.

Ms. Kendall says the Museum drew on the experiences of Vietnamese-Americans and U.S. war veterans in shaping the exhibition. "We have worked very closely with members of the Vietnamese-American community, we have had focus groups with veterans. We want everybody concerned, everybody who has some sort of historical stake in Vietnam, to feel that this show is, in some sense, for them," she says.

The exhibition is a collaborative effort of the American Museum of Natural History and the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi.

Natural History Museum President Ellen Futter says the landmark collaboration had an emotional impact on her and her colleagues. "This one was especially moving, particularly for the Americans, for whom Vietnam had an entirely different meaning. Most of us were either students or just out of school during the war, and I think the opportunity to go back and see that country, or even to go for the first time to see that country or work in Hanoi, to participate in a reconciliation and a rebuilding was very gratifying," she says.

Ms. Futter says the collaboration "mirrors the larger reconciliation going on between Vietnam and the United States", and hopes that the camaraderie exhibition curators enjoyed will spill over to the public.

But the long trek from war to reconciliation is not the only journey explored in the exhibition. It also celebrates more literal journeys of modern-day Vietnam people traveling on buses, goods being transported to market, a New Years Day parade winding through a tangle of revelers.

Part of the exhibition focuses on Vietnam's decision to open its doors to the global marketplace in the late 1980s, after which its goods began reaching international ports.

Exhibition curator Laurel Kendall says that handmade textiles, ceramics, masks, wooden sculptures, water-puppets and festival paraphernalia all plucked from the streets of Vietnam today demonstrate both the vibrancy of Vietnamese craft-making traditions and its embrace of the international marketplace. "In Vietnam, culture is alive. Culture has been revitalized and is a part of everyday life. I want them to appreciate the extreme ethnic diversity of Vietnam," she says. "This is the most ethnically diverse population in southeast Asia. There are 54 recognized ethnicities. We got about 14 into the exhibit."

Spirituality seems to be the common ground of Vietnam's many ethnic groups. The exhibition is filled with colorful religious items, from small pieces of jewelry to giant serpents, made from paper and wood.

One of the centerpieces of the exhibition is an "ancestral alter". The large wooden table, ornately decorated, is common to many Vietnamese homes. Though sacred, it is a living part of the home, and as such is covered with fruit, cake-boxes, and liquor bottles.

Just outside the exhibition entrance, the museum has re-created a traditional Vietnamese market with street stalls serving local delicacies.

The exhibition is expected to go on tour next year, introducing modern Vietnam to Americans in a variety of U.S. cities, before winding up in Hanoi in 2005.