Creating Identity in America: A Look at the Smithsonian’s Beyond Bollywood Exhibition

The immigrant story is a timeless and consistent theme in United States history. As new groups make America home for reasons of opportunity, sanctuary, freedom, etc., enlivened debates as to who is really “American” rise: Is America a melting pot or a salad bowl? Can one be an individual, traditional, and assimilated simultaneously? The exhibit Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation explores the tenuous balance of creating identity through the stories of various immigrant communities.

On February 27, 2014, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) launched its anticipated Beyond Bollywood exhibition. Sponsored in part by the Asian Pacific American Center, the exhibit shares the compelling but comparatively untold story of one immigrant group—the Indian American. Incorporating photography, narratives, multimedia, and interactive stations, NMNH presents the history of Indian migration to the United States, and highlights this community’s contributions to American society. Running on site at NMNH until August 16, 2015, the exhibition will then travel to other museums around the nation. The Smithsonian has also developed an online exhibition and a blog to supplement the experience.

While institutions such as the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the New York Historical Society offer engaging programming on immigrant experiences (check out Tenement Tours and Chinese American: Inclusion/Exclusion, respectively), the Indian American journey tends to remain underrepresented. To prove this point, the Smithsonian, an institution boasting 137 million collection items, found that it did not possess enough objects for the 5,000 square foot Beyond Bollywood exhibition area, resorting to an open call [1]. This exhibit, then, serves as an introduction to the topic of Indian American immigration, assimilation, and identity. Curator Masum Momaya comments: “We [NMNH] want to show the diversity of the [Indian American] community and what the community participates in, and the diversity of accomplishments in the community” [2]. The timeline follows several waves of immigration—from the first crewman who sailed to the United States in 1790, to the 1950s and 1960s “when a highly-educated wave of doctors and engineers immigrated to fill a surplus of American jobs” [3].

The online portion of the exhibit relates the importance of an exhibition such as this: “One out of every 100 Americans traces his or her roots to India. India’s fingerprints here range from flavorful food and flamboyant fashion to yoga studies, sites of worship, and breakthroughs in medicine, science, and technology” [4]. The Indian American culture infuses itself with every aspect of American life, and yet the community does not receive a proportional amount of representation. The exhibit does not seek to tell a story of assimilation nor of isolation: instead, Beyond Bollywood displays the Indian American quest for acceptance amid individuality. This very notion is symbolized by the lack of punctuation in the term: It is not “Indian-American,” but, rather, two distinct words. This community is uniquely Indian American, a conglomeration of Indian and American ideals fused together to create a separate category neither wholly one nor the other, but reflecting aspects of both.

A cartoon of Uncle Sam hugging a Sikh. Appeared in newspapers on August 8, 2012. By permission of Michael Ramirez and Creators Syndicate, Inc.

A cartoon of Uncle Sam hugging a Sikh. Appeared in newspapers on August 8, 2012. By permission of Michael Ramirez and Creators Syndicate, Inc.

The cartoon image of Uncle Sam hugging a Sikh represents this mixture, this attempt at acceptance. This piece was rendered after Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Arizona, was murdered shortly after the 9/11 Terrorist Attack simply because he was not American in the eyes of Frank Silva Roque. His senseless death exposes a larger issue: that Indian Americans are still considered the “other,” that they have not yet been embraced by larger America. Beyond Bollywood not only attempts to expose the mistreatment of Indian Americans, but also shares the triumphant stories of Indian Americans who have become United States politicians, Nobel Prize winners, professional football players, and famous actors. Although criticized for being a vanity project or for lacking nuance, Priya Chhaya recognizes the importance of the exhibition as a popular introduction. Her question looking forward remains: “How do we reach the point of just becoming part of ‘American history’ rather than a subaltern section of it?” [5]. No one institution, not even the Smithsonian cannot fully answer that question, but museums can start that conversation. The exhibit, Beyond Bollywood, despite its flaws, asks its audience to ponder the identity struggle of a group of Americans whose story is relatively unheard.

This desire to “become American” whilst also remaining true to one’s ancestry is a hard-to-achieve equilibrium in the creation of identity. Exhibitions such as Beyond Bollywood are important not because they are the end-all-be-all for defining any one groups’ identity, but because they expose the difficulties of forging one’s own path while simultaneously trying to fit in. The exhibit calls us to consider the Indian American story, and to perhaps indulge in self-reflection as to what identity in America means.

[1] Lavanya Ramanathan. “‘Beyond Bollywood’ at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.” The Washington Post. March 16, 2014.

[2] “Beyond Bollywood.” Video.

[3] Amy Henderson. “How Museums and the Arts are Presenting Identity So That It Unites, Not Divides.” May 29, 2014.

[4] “Digital Exhibition.” Beyond Bollywood.

[5] Priya Chhaya. “Beyond Fifteen Minutes of Fame.” Public History Commons. November 26, 2014.