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Monkey Kings! Bat Trang Bicycles! The hero Le Loi! Chanting and Dancing! Tet Celebration rituals! You can always trust the American Museum of Natural History to be on the cutting edge; its curators go the distance to bring a wide variety of cultures and perspectives to its visitors. This time, Curator Laurel Kendall has gone an unusual distance, by collaborating with Nguyen Van Huy, Director of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi, to bring a groundbreaking exhibit to New York with Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, & Spirit.

“When we Americans hear the word ‘Vietnam,’ we think first of the tragic war that ended some 30 years ago. It is our profound hope that for many this exhibition will serve as a reintroduction to this highly diverse and vibrant culture. We are delighted to be in a position to share the culture of Vietnam with Americans and visitors from around the world, in hope of fostering cross-cultural understanding and respect - a goal that has never been more important than it is today,” President of the American Museum of Natural History, Ellen V. Futter said on the occasion of the exhibit opening.

Vietnam showcases many aspects of life, cultural beliefs and practices, found amongst Vietnam’s population of 54 diverse ethnic groups. And it is remarkable how fascinating they are-from the Tet (New Year) Celebration, to elaborate, exuberant colorful processions honoring legendary Heroes and Deities, to spiritual journeys made by shamans to provide their clients with health and good fortune. Hanoi itself, Vietnam’s Capital, was founded in 1010; it’s 1000 Year Anniversary preparations are already underway.

Presenting a culture that is so foreign to many Americans might sound difficult, but these curators have presented their vision of Vietnam with intriguing artifacts, words and pictures. When a visitor first enters the museum, the mood is set by a simulated traditional Vietnamese marketplace complete with street vendors, bamboo stands, and a brilliantly colored 76-foot-long dragon costume that snakes toward the entrance of the exhibit. Beautiful and authentic crafts, including basketry, ornamental items, and delicately embroidered silk and batik textiles are available for sale-their prices surprisingly reasonable. As if that wasn’t mood setting enough, the Museum’s café (renamed Café Pho for this occasion) also features genuine Vietnamese delicacies.

One unusual and memorable aspect of Vietnam is its’ timeline- 2000 years of Vietnam history is displayed. The exhibit is divided into 8 sections of mythical and historical events; photographs; religious artifacts; 2 videos about families and preparations for celebrations; ceremonial rituals including coming-of-age ceremonies, weddings, and funerals; costumes; and a variety of objects from festivals. There is also an accompanying photography exhibit focusing on Vietnam’s unique and important biological diversity and current threats to it, Discovering Vietnam’s Biodiversity.

This pioneering exhibit is a landmark in understanding between two cultures that 28 years ago were at war. This is a very important step on the road to healing old wounds, and learning for the first time how the people of Vietnam live and believe. The next step, of course, is to pack your bags and visit this beautiful, exotic country yourself!

So expand your worldview and get a taste of this fascinating, vivid culture by visiting the AMNH asap. For Museum information, hours, special programs, lectures or to learn more about these and other exhibits, check out / Issue 31 - September 2018
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