Cultural lens on Vietnam

A 400-item exhibition in New York offers a fresh view of the country.

It's a country, not a war." That's the message Laurel Kendall would like visitors to take away from an exhibition on Vietnam at New York's American Museum of Natural History.

"This is the Vietnam we feel people need to know," says Ms. Kendall, the show's co-curator. "If we're ever going to have healing [between the United States and Vietnam], we need to see each other, and know each other, as we are now, in the 21st century."

The 1964-1975 Vietnam War, in which the United States suffered more than 200,000 casualties, has seared images of Vietnam on the American psyche as a treacherous, inhospitable land.

But today's Vietnam proves to be a quite different place, as "Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind & Spirit" amply illustrates. It's the most comprehensive exhibition on Vietnamese life ever presented in the US.

Vietnam now possesses a market economy and a culture that includes 54 ethnic groups. Of its 80 million people, more than half are younger than 25, born after the end of the war.

Kendall, an anthropologist at the museum, spent three years working with her co-curator, Nguyen Van Huy, director of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, designing the exhibition. In the process, she made about a dozen trips to the Southeast Asian country, which is a little smaller than California.

"The first time I went, I was carrying a great deal of guilt, and I didn't know what to expect," Kendall says. "I wouldn't have been surprised to encounter hostility." Instead, she says, "what I have always encountered in Vietnam is a sense of hospitality, a sense of graciousness."

She says of the Vietnamese she met, they wanted "to get to know you now and move on."

That spirit of reconciliation was also fostered when young Vietnamese from Hanoi and young Vietnamese-Americans, whose families had come to the US as refugees, teamed to help set up the exhibit. "Seeing them work together and gossip together and hang out together was really very exciting," Kendall says. "People had told us starting out that this would be impossible."

The 400 items on display elucidate both everyday life in Vietnam and important ceremonies and festivals, such as the Tet new year, marriage and burial, and the children's mid-autumn festival. Items include textiles, toys, masks, ceramics, and wooden sculptures.

Videos in the exhibition augment the objects by helping to "make things real," Kendall says. Cameramen from the Vietnamese museum were able to shoot rituals "we would never in a million years have gotten access to."

For example, a coming-of-age ritual among the Yao people of northern Vietnam shows how a 14-year-old boy must climb a ladder and pitch himself backward into a net. The ceremony represents his spiritual rebirth. Another video shows the art of water puppetry in Chua Thay, in northern Vietnam. Puppets are controlled invisibly from under water and feature characters such as fishermen and dragons.

Votive paper goods are made to be burned on behalf of the dead so that they will have items they need in their next life. Among the objects exquisitely crafted of paper are clothing, kitchen equipment, a television set, and even a full-size bicycle.

An exhibition of children's masks makes the point that Vietnam is hardly closed off from the world. Along with traditional characters, the masks depict Donald Duck, Minnie Mouse, Santa Claus, Japanese animated figures, and Chinese folk heroes. "Hanoi children," says Kendall, "are just as cosmopolitan as New York children."

'Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind & Spirit' runs through Jan. 4 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

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