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Written by Leslie Swartz
The Children's Museum Responds to a Growing Interest in Asian Culture
Until the mid-1970s, Asia was still viewed as exotic, and perhaps even unknowable. The Vietnam War only compounded misconceptions of all things "Asian." But three momentous shifts brought Asia into sharper focus for Americans. First, following the Vietnam War, large-scale emigration from Southeast Asia brought Hmong, Cambodians, Lao, and Vietnamese to American cities and into American schools. Second, Japan's rise as an economic giant challenged the U.S. sense of supremacy. Third, monumental political and economic change in China made it possible for the United States and China to "normalize" relations and open the doors to various forms of exchange. Images of Asia in the media started to focus on distinct and separate countries, cultures, economic systems, and histories. Moreover, immigrants from a vast array of Asian countries and cultures moved to Boston, which shifted how The Children's Museum staff thought about Asia, Asian- Americans, and the purpose of cultural education at the museum.
In 1976, I was teaching courses on American, European, and Chinese history at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School outside of Boston. While completing graduate work in Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan (U of M), I had worked in U of M's Project on Asian Studies in Education, where I helped to "translate" scholarly research on China into practical curricula for elementary and secondary classrooms. I loved teaching at Lincoln-Sudbury but I wanted to use my academic background more fully. And I was especially interested in finding a China education project in Boston.
During this same year, The Children's Museum and Harvard University East Asian Studies Center joined in a collaborative effort to expand teaching and learning about East Asia by providing K-12 educators with educational resources and professional development programs on Japan and China. Harvard had been selected by what was then known as the U.S. Office of Education (now the U.S. Department of Education) to serve as a National Resource Center for Asian Studies. In this new role, the center was obligated to allocate dollars to "outreach," and TCM was selected to be a vehicle for extending Asian Studies into the pre-collegiate curriculum. This was a bold move for Harvard, since other Asian Studies outreach centers were either based in the university or were independent nonprofits whose sole mission was to provide professional development for teachers. To this day, the Harvard East Asian Program (HEAP) funding has remained remarkably consistent, with annual grants to the museum. This longstanding relationship has conferred on the museum an academic legitimacy and credibility among teachers at all levels, and the museum has leveraged this foundational funding to the hilt.
The Harvard funding created a mandate to teach about China, as well as Japan. The museum already had staff with expertise on Japan but none with a similar strength on China. Fortuitously, at a conference about Asian Studies in the K-12 curriculum, I met the Harvard Asian Studies administrators and TCM Japan staff member, Karen Weisel Zien. Working with Leslie Bedford, Zien had enriched the collection and developed and managed the Japanese House exhibit and program. Together, they were putting together the HEAP collaboration. I offered them my expertise, and they accepted. Working very part time on contract at TCM while still teaching at Lincoln-Sudbury, I became the China specialist for the Harvard East Asian Project.