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Viet Nam: Journeys Exhibition in New York city (Mar 29, 2003)

Director of the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology (VME), Associate Professor Nguyen Van Huy, chats with Thanh Huyen.

There was no rest for the director of the VME, Nguyen Van Huy, after becoming the first Vietnamese person to win an award from the NGO Aid to Artisans. Soon afterwards, he was hopping between Ha Noi and New York to prepare for the first exhibition of modern Vietnamese culture in the US. Titled Viet Nam: Journeys of Body, Mind and Spirit, this historic event also marks the journey of the Vietnamese and American peoples from war to reconciliation.

How did the idea for the exhibition take shape?

The display is the result of a co-operation between the VME and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It originated from a limited, even one-sided understanding about Viet Nam among American audiences. The word "Viet Nam" conjured up images of "war" in their minds. More recently, with the development of tourism Viet Namís image has been linked with charming natural scenes or young women wearing ao dai (traditional long dresses) and non (conical hats). Western movies pictured a romantic, poetic Viet Nam, blended with nostalgia for the past. This prompted us to show American audiences a new, three-dimensional, vivid, more truthful image of Viet Nam.

Why it is called "journeys"?

The title carries a main theme of the exhibition, which is to describe human experience as a journey. Through both real and virtual journeys, the display takes American audiences on the journey of a changing Viet Nam, experiencing the incredible diversity of its landscape and people. It is a contemporary Viet Nam, recognised as the most diverse country in Southeast Asia.

The "journey" is a popular metaphor, containing different layers of meaning. First, there are journeys through real space with people and goods, including travels by train, air and motorbike as Vietnamese people return home for Tet (the lunar new year); and the motion of ceramics from kilns to cities.

Secondly, there are virtual journeys through human imagination, within the world of spirit and community. These are captured in the journeys of gods, life and death, and to other worlds.

Thirdly, the journeys also hint at a meaning of time. A year starts with the Tet festival, then moves on to popular festivals to the mid-Autumn festival. In his life, a person experiences the initiation ritual of the Yao people, a wedding and then a funeral.

What was the biggest challenge the exhibitors faced when preparing for the event?

Most challenges stemmed from the limitations of a young museum as ours working with a partner with 100 years experience. Whenever we started on a project, we had to learn everything from the beginning. For example, we had to learn contemporary exhibition methods, or borrowing procedures under international regulations.

How did the idea of using images of exhibitorsí families themselves for the display arise?

It is the first time the VME used family photographs and video clips of my family as well those of as other staff members.

We didnít aim to introduce or honour any individual, but itís a display of a culture through the stories and pictures of individuals. This approach creates trust among audiences, and visitors can even meet some of the people featured in the exhibition.

We would like to overcome the old practice of focusing on collecting during field trips but forgetting to observe what was happening in our own community.

How have American audiences received the exhibition?

The press conference introducing the show on March 11 attracted more than 2,000 reporters and journalists. Major news organisations, including The New York Times and CBS have run reports.

We have also received positive comments from the public. Many American visitors said the display has completely changed their views of Viet Nam.

Almost all visitors have been deeply impressed by the richness and vitality of Vietnamese culture. Some said that before their visit, they didnít know Viet Nam had so many ethnic minority groups. They were particularly fascinated by the ability, strength and impetus of Vietnamese people. ó VNS

Reprinted with permission from Vietnam News Agency


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