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Ethnic Museums Abounding

July 4, 2003

Ethnic Museums Abounding


New York City makes it possible to see much of the world without ever leaving the city.

Everyone knows about the teeming variety of ethnic neighborhoods. But less known is the city's wealth of ethnic museums — small, and sometimes small-time collections that explore the history and culture of groups that have shaped the New York we know. There are at least 25, most springing up in the surge of ethnic self-consciousness of recent decades, and they allow an urban explorer to dig more deeply into the art and artifacts of the ethnicities whose foods they may have just tasted around the corner.

In a few daytime hours, I was off on the road to the Ukraine, hopscotched to Scandinavia, voyaged from Catholic Europe to Catholic Puerto Rico, trekked across the tribal lands of South Africa, rambled through the Jewish South, and explored the hard road between China and Chinatown. And I did it all on a MetroCard. So numerous are these museums that I could have done the same with the cultures of the Japanese, American Indians, Tibetans, Iberians and the poor of the historic Lower East Side, as well as with a variety of other ethnic groups. While they all seemed intriguing, I chose a half-dozen that were off the beaten track or, like the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem, known primarily for other functions.

But I also learned that ethnic museums give you an appetizer, what one group might call a forshpayz, but not a whole meal. Comprehensive these museums are not. The Ukrainian Museum may have a wonderful exhibition of Easter eggs, but a full exploration of Ukrainian culture requires an actual trip to Kiev. Squeezed for space, these museums often lack permanent exhibitions and so a spur-of-the-moment visit can be surprising.

The museums tend to be grass-roots in origin, so they don't have lavish endowments and powerful boards, nor much money to spend on collection, publicity or display. Riveting as it is, the collection of the National Museum of Catholic Art and History seems patched together out of whatever donations of art and memorabilia officials could scavenge — a bevy of 250 nun's dolls here, a display on the Fighting 69th there — but without a unifying theme.

But all the Manhattan museums I visited seem to have ardent staffs who realize that if not for them certain cultures would not earn the respect they deserve in the city's mosaic. And for anyone who has been jostled through a Metropolitan Museum of Art blockbuster, there is deep pleasure in a deserted showcase that affords time and space to muse.

Chinese Museum

The Museum of Chinese in the Americas is tenderly homespun. On the second floor of a 110-year-old public school building on Mulberry Street, you can see the remnants of a cramped Chinese laundry from the Bronx of the 1950's, complete with shirts wrapped in brown paper, those numbered pink and yellow tickets, and a touching photograph of the family who lived behind the store. Here is a letter written by a wife in Hong Kong to her husband stranded in Chinatown, feelingly telling him, "With all these years in the foreign land, you are just work for others, slaved yourself for the sake of others."

That's what makes this museum so appealing; it is full of intimate detritus, literally so. Much of its permanent exhibition, called "Where Is Home," was put together from garbage found in Chinatown's dumpsters. "We wanted to create that feeling of rummaging through your grandmother's closet," said Cynthia Lee, deputy director of programs.

The museum's operative theme is that the Chinese who settled here were migrants who always felt themselves, to use Ms. Lee's words, betwixt and between, with their heart in their homeland. That strain was deepened by the fact that until the latter half of the 20th century restrictive immigration laws turned Chinatown into a bachelor society, full of laborers who were here without their wives. One result: they depended on restaurants for their food, and that explains why Chinatown has so many.

In the lantern-shaped exhibition hall, the display cases are charmingly eclectic. There are pressing irons and photographs of Chun Kong Chow, who started a general store at the corner of Mott Street. There is also a crimson silk robe used by opera troupes, a photograph of a Chinese baseball team, a newspaper's tray of Chinese characters in lead type, a lion's head mask used in a New Year celebration, and a picture of Miss Chinatown, 1971.

The most poignant artifact is a photograph of the Low family taken in 1961. It is the kind of trite shot many American families used to take. But what makes this one so affecting is that four of the faces are of relatives scattered abroad. They have been pasted in as if the family had been reunited, a triumph of wishing over harsh reality.

Yeshiva University Museum

The Yeshiva University Museum is in a new treasure house of Jewish history on West 16th Street and its current exhibition, "A Portion of the People," is a gem. It depicts in rich detail 300 years of the history of Jews in South Carolina, which is little known to Yankee doodles. The curator is Dale Rosengarten, a native New Yorker who has spent the last 27 years in South Carolina.

The exhibition starts with the arrival of the first families in the 1600's, most of them Sephardic, and there are portraits of descendants of these pioneers as well as a copy of the Carolina constitution, which in 1669 instituted tolerance for Jews. By the early 1800's Charleston was home to more Jews — 500 — than New York City. Judah P. Benjamin was the Confederacy's Secretary of State. And the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue in Charleston established the first foothold of Reform Judaism on these shores, in 1841.

The exhibition takes us through the 20th century with photographs of the Jewish dry-goods and department stores that were a fixture of many Southern towns, a kosher deli in Charleston and a photograph of Charleston's current black and Jewish police chief, Reuben M. Greenberg.

Memorable heirlooms on view include a handwritten holy day prayer book belonging to Abraham Alexander Sr., an early-19th-century customs official; a large wooden gragger, or noisemaker, used on Purim; and a pair of glass cups, or bankas, to draw fever from an ailing body.

There is also a tender poem written by Octavia Harby Moses, who sent five sons into the Confederate Army. One of those was killed a day after Appomattox and, this grieving Jewish mother wrote, "Sleep sweetly in thy lonely grave/ My good, my beautiful, my brave."

The exhibition does not flinch from tackling Jewish slave ownership, an issue raised by Leonard Jeffries of City College and others in statements that single out Jews and that have been criticized as anti-Semitic. And it is made clear that Jews, in their eagerness to adapt, took on all the Southern mores becoming, as Ms. Rosengarten pointed out, "a portion of the people, the good and the bad."

Museum of Catholic Art

There sometimes seems to be no thread of logic to the National Museum of Catholic Art and History's collection in a restored convent in what was once Italian Harlem. But it's a lot more fun than some major museums.

It is the work of one driven person, Christina Cox, a Long Island-bred former flight attendant and marketer who started the collection in her living room, moved it to a storefront next door to St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1995 and opened this year in East Harlem. Do not underestimate her. She not only received help from Donald Trump and Regis Philbin and the blessings of Pope John Paul II, but also figured out that a new Home Depot rising a couple of blocks away would lure many shoppers to her museum.

On display in a bright room is a series of hauntingly faceless angels made of epoxy and cloth by Muriel Castanis. In another room is a collection of dozens of dolls and porcelain figurines of nuns that also includes kitsch pieces like Sally Field as the Flying Nun. There is a collection of 17th- and 18th-century Latin American paintings and weathered 18th-century santos de palo, small painted carvings of saints, used by Puerto Ricans as home altars. The museum boasts bronze angels by Salvador DalĀ and a "Betrayal of Christ" by Van Dyck.

Wander down a hallway and you're in an irresistible exhibition on the celebrated Irish Brigade, the Fighting 69th, now headquartered in a Manhattan armory on Lexington Avenue at 26th Street. Those who think of the unit as an excuse for a Pat O'Brien movie — he played the World War I chaplain Father Francis Duffy — will be surprised to learn from the regimental flags and memorabilia that the unit was started in the 1850's by Catholic immigrants escaping the Irish famine who hoped to use their military training against the English.

"Gentle When Stroked, Fierce When Provoked," was the unit's motto, and there are flags from Civil War glories at Antietam and other battlefields. Letters on display show that so anti-British were its officers that they refused to parade before Edward, Prince of Wales, who was visiting the city in 1860. The poet Joyce Kilmer was killed fighting with the unit in World War I, and there is the helmet of a chaplain killed on Okinawa in World War II, with the bullet hole still chillingly visible.

Schomburg Center

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is world famous as a library, but it also boasts exhibitions like the current "Art of African Women" and a future show on Ralph J. Bunche, the Nobel Prize-winning United Nations diplomat.

The African show is a collection of more than 100 photographs taken over 20 years by the Namibian-born photojournalist Margaret Courtney-Clarke, which depict women painting walls and dyeing fabrics and teaching their daughters to carry on these vanishing traditions. There are also 80 pieces of pottery and textiles that Ms. Courtney-Clarke picked up along the way.

Especially affecting were "long tears," beaded strips worn by Ndebele women in South Africa after their sons go off for initiation rites. They represent, an explanatory note tells you, "tears of sadness at losing a boy and tears of joy at gaining a man."

The Berber milk jugs and fabrics are not only handsome, but compelling for their motifs: a partridge symbolizing virtue in a wife, a lion's paw symbolizing male strength. Photographs show that some Berber women tattoo their faces as a gesture of friendship.

There is a ladder carved from a single tree trunk used in Nigerian homes, a mud cloth from Mali made from dyes taken from the bark of wolo trees and the leaves of the n'golama tree. The Ndebele objects were especially piquant: a beaded banner containing images of airplanes and colorful leg hoops made of grass twisted into a tight coil and beaded.

Scandinavia House

The number of New Yorkers who know about Swedish wall hangings might not even fill a Manhattan apartment building. But these naĀve paintings, from the regions of Dalarna and Smaland, are worth knowing about, and Scandinavia House, in a new eight-story building on lower Park Avenue, has a world-class collection of this 18th- and 19th-century folk art. In recent years Scandinavia House has also featured exhibitions on Norwegian sculpture, Strindberg's photographs, Norwegian maps, and Jewish life in Norway.

The pigmented linen, canvas or paper hangings, known as bonader in Swedish, were used to animate farmhouse walls, especially for holidays and weddings. Framed by lush floral motifs, they mostly picture biblical scenes: the children of Israel dancing before the Golden Calf, the Queen of Sheba journeying to King Solomon, the Wise Men presenting gifts to Jesus. But what makes them so curious is that the biblical figures are dressed as bourgeois Swedes, with top hats, black suits and hooplike skirts. And the dwellings are more Stockholm than Sinai. Jesus looks like a bewigged parson. King Solomon is actually a likeness of King Carl XIV of the early 19th century and Sheba is his wife, Queen Desideria.

The inscriptions on the hangings are revealing, offering a glimpse into the dark vision that might have given birth to, say, an Ingmar Bergman. "As Absalom on the flight rides and is caught in a great oak," one inscription says, "so are punished all children who do not obey father and mother."

Ukrainian Museum

Next year, the Ukrainian Museum will be moving into a sleek three-story home that will allow it to display the full range of its thousands of paintings, ceramics, festive attire and historical photographs. But for now it is confined to a single room in a building in the East Village that houses other Ukrainian organizations and is near restaurants like Veselka and Kiev, where stuffed cabbage and pirogies are the specialties.

On show are mostly 400 Easter eggs, ritual cloths and clothing, decorated in folk motifs. The eggs, known as pysanky, hark back to pre-Christian times when people perceived the egg as the source of life. The Ukrainian eggs are different from the famous Russian ones in that they use fresh chicken eggs from which the yolk and whites have been siphoned and they are pigmented in a painstaking hot-wax process. The results are eggs of brilliant design with pagan and Christian symbols that speak of love, wisdom and wealth to those who can break the code.

"A girl would find a fellow she would like and give it to him, and if he accepted it, then that was it," said Marta Baczynsky, the museum's public relations officer.

The folk costumes include delicately embroidered jackets as well as head coverings worn by married women to conceal their attractiveness from all but their husbands. The ritual cloths were worn around the waist by brides as symbolic safeguards for their wombs.

Also on display are large woven holiday breads, which to a provincial New Yorker look pretty much like challahs and validate the melting pot theory, even if the melting took place in Ukraine.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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