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This exhibit must go!

August 6th, 2004 · 2 Comments

Last week a friend and I took our children to the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. We were interested in seeing the touring Lewis and Clark exhibit. My girls and I also spent some time exploring the first floor of the museum.

Highlights included sitting in at least two covered wagons, including one drawn by a pair of oxen (no flash allowed for photos though!).


I also enjoyed learning about the different explorers, beginning with Lewis and Clark. Although I had heard of John Charles Fremont while growing up (I think he was featured on a drinking-glass series we picked up through frequenting a fast-food chain?!) I wasn’t aware that his wife Jessie was the one who had written his books for him. She made history as a woman writer.


Upstairs, we discovered, was a section of museum prepared for children. There was a large railroad and a place where kids could assemble jigsaw map puzzles. Abigail and Michaela each had fun playing a computer game that helped the girls learn to determine the age of an artifact or photo. Kids could also push buttons and play video clips from the past including the fall of the Tacoma Narrows bridge, the destruction of the Kingdome and statistics from Bill Gates on PCs in 1985 (only 5% of homes had a PC).

But it was in the children’s exhibit where I became upset with the museum. At a small kiosk that was trying to explain the meaning of ephemera, I read a number of pieces from the era of the late-nineteenth century when the Chinese were forced out of the area. These flyers and articles had been mounted and slid into slots; their content was hidden and a reader pulling them out would be surprised. I was surprised by what I read.


I think that it is fine to teach children what ephemera are. But to use a powerful issue such as the expulsion of an ethnic group from the community for an illustration seems irresponsible to me. I may have missed something in the museum, but I did not see any explanation of how the region worked through this tension. What happened to the Chinese? How were they expelled? And how did they return? What kinds of issues did the Chinese and others have to overcome?

I was apalled that there did not seem to be any sensitivity or consideration for children reading this material. This exhibit was in the kids section, and on a small kiosk between two video screens. This was one of the first times my girls were exposed to something expressing a strong negative opinion about a particular ethnic group. Yes, racism happens and it’s a part of life. But I wished the museum had either treated the topic of the Chinese expulsion with more depth or that they had used another subject to illustrate “ephemera”. “The Chinese Must Go!” is too serious and intense a topic for a tiny kiosk.

Abigail saw the sign and had questions. She is old enough to start to understand it. Yet outside my own knowledge, the kiosk did not provide any answers.

The museum seemed to devote a large amount of space to Native Americans, and this is appropriate, especially considering that Washington State has only been settled by Europeans for the past 150 years or so. But I wish that they had been as sensitive toward other issues of race and culture in our state’s history.

Tags: places

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Garrett Fitzgerald // Aug 6, 2004 at 9:45 am

    Interesting dilemma, huh? On one hand, I want to teach my girls that discrimination is wrong. On the other hand, I’m not sure they have the concept yet, and I don’t want to teach them that it exists, because then they might start doing it. 🙁

  • 2 enoch choi // Aug 7, 2004 at 3:25 pm

    there’s alot of history about anti-chinese sentiment in san francisco and in the california gold country. we were good enough for their labor, but they wanted us limited in every way (geographic:couldn’t go beyond chinatown, family:couldn’t have women in US, services:wanted chinatown to be self-policing and self-serving). Pretty ugly, and recent history.