My thesis on documenting Indian American history reflects almost two years of work. I have always been a lover of history and the institutions and media that exist to preserve it. Being Indian American, the people and their culture have intrigued me for personal reasons, as well as academic motives. The rapid growth of this population and its assimilation into American society are topics worth exploring. Indian Americans have come a long way since they started arriving to America in the 19th century. They are now a sizable and successful community in this country and it is time they start honoring the journey that has gotten them this far.
Working with the Smithsonian Institution’s Indian American Heritage Project brought on its share of challenges and opportunities. At times, it was difficult to reconcile the design vision I had with the realities of working with a client who came with a set of requirements and limitations. However, these challenges were more than offset by knowledge that I was partnering with such a reputable institution on an effort that will live well beyond the pages of a paper.
I am now done with thesis (and my degree at Pratt!), but I have plans to continue working with the IAHP over the next year, and perhaps even longer, as they plan the opening of the Beyond Bollywood exhibition, raise awareness among Indian Americans and develop new initiatives.
Final thesis exhibition at Pratt
The IAHP didn’t have a large enough budget to spend on a designer. As such, no branding for the exhibition’s marketing collateral had been set, and the materials in circulation did not have a cohesive look or a well-executed design. The department had not been successful in getting a significant number of submissions. The goal of my design work is to encourage contributions and raise general awareness that an exhibition on Indian American history was being planned. So, without further ado, here are the pieces I completed for the IAHP.
In addition to the above, I updated the Facebook profile page for the IAHP that is consistent with the new designs. The Facebook page serves as a place for younger Indian Americans to learn about the IAHP and the exhibition, as well submit their photos and stories directly to the APA.
In order to understand how Indian Americans feel about their history, heritage and living in the United States, I conducted a survey over the spring that ultimately collected 151 responses. The survey was designed to have a different set of questions for Indian immigrants and first or later-generation Indian Americans who were either born in the U.S. or had spent the majority of their lives here. After answering a few basic demographic questions (e.g., age, sex, country of birth, current location), the survey takers were split into two groups. Immigrants answered questions regarding the reasons they came to the U.S., what their early experiences were like, and how they felt today about living in the U.S. The first-generation Indian Americans were asked questions about growing up between two cultures and how this influenced their lives.
Both groups were asked open-ended questions on the unique experiences they faced in the U.S. and how they identify themselves between their two cultures. The last section of the survey asked all of the participants their opinions on documenting Indian American history, particularly whether they felt it was important and if they were willing to participate in any relevant efforts. The results of the survey provided valuable insights on present day Indian Americans. For my thesis exhibition, I designed an infographic showing the most compelling results, alongside interesting historical facts.
Back when I was planning to design a digital archive, I had started to take photos around New York City of Indian American events. In April and August, the city had two annual parades, one honoring Sikhs, and another for Indian Independence Day. The IAHP is looking for community-generated content, so when I mentioned that I had taken photographs to Masum, she asked if I would like feature some of them in the future exhibition. Of course, I said yes! The photos selected are shown above.
At the end of Thesis I, I had been leaning towards designing a digital archive of Indian American artifacts curated by my friends and family. Once I spoke with Masum, I decided to change direction.
The IAHP presented a wonderful opportunity to pursue my thesis in a live setting, and on a much larger scale. I was attracted to the IAHP’s efforts to build an exhibition that was partially curated through the contributions of Indian Americans. Their desire to create a digital multimedia archive of artifacts was one I shared. My research supported that a participatory archive of factual records was the best way to document a collective cultural history.
The IAHP is groundbreaking because it is the first significant effort on a national scale and by a federal organization to document Indian American history. The Smithsonian Institution was established in 1846 and today, is the world’s largest museum and research complex with 19 museums, 9 research centers and more than 140 affiliate museums around the world.
Once I gave Masum an overview of my thesis and she spoke with me about their needs, we both concluded that it would be mutually beneficent to work together. The IAHP became my client and we agreed that I would deliver the following over the next few months:
Beyond Bollywood Exhibition
1. Design an exhibition logo
2. Create a branding system
3. Design postcards as a for photo and story submissions
4. Design posters to posters to raise awareness of the future exhibition
Indian American Heritage Project
1. Design a logo
2. Redesign the website
3. Assist with several social media marketing efforts
Over the summer, I learned that the Smithsonian Institution’s American Pacific Asian Center (APA) was working on an initiative – the Indian American Heritage Project (IAHP) – to chronicle the experience of immigrants from India and Indian Americans in the U.S. To learn more about the effort, I sought out Masum Momaya, who had just come on board as the new curator. After exchanging a few emails, we spoke on the phone today.
I learned that the key components of the IAHP include a traveling exhibition, public programs, a curriculum guide for youth, an interactive website, and artifacts donated to the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. The most significant component of the IAHP is its planned exhibition, Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation. It is scheduled to open in late 2013 and occupy a 5,000 square feet space at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.
The exhibition’s goal is to explore the heritage, daily experience, and diverse political, professional and cultural contributions of Indian immigrants and their descendants in the U.S. Included in the exhibition, will be historical and contemporary images and several dozen artifacts, including those documenting histories of discrimination and resistance, those conveying daily experiences and those symbolizing achievements across the professions. Many of these artifacts will be collected directly from the public through personal contributions. Music and visual art works providing commentary on the Indian American experience will also form a critical component of the exhibition.
Among the specific topics to be covered are: early (late 1800’s-1900’s) immigrant experiences, struggles for citizenship in the first half of the 20th century, professional contributions from the 1960’s and beyond, organizing for labor rights, women’s rights and labor rights and cultural contributions through food, music, dance and in the entertainment industry.
After a one year tenure at the Smithsonian, Beyond Bollywood will travel to about 15 sites throughout the country to reach Indian American communities. A part of the exhibition, consisting mostly of the multimedia artifacts will be maintained online on the IAHP website.
Earlier this month, I presented the culmination of my Thesis I efforts in front of Pratt’s graduate Communications Design faculty. I received great feedback and lots of encouragement from the audience. My full presentation, which outlines my research findings, conclusions and next steps is below:
Pratt Thesis I Presentation