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Storytelling Re-Imagined

Posted on May 31, 2018 by in The OFI Blog |

The Benjamin Lawless Internship for Stories allows interns to engage in the art of storytelling and exhibition. Named for the internationally recognized Smithsonian exhibition planner, designer, filmmaker, and writer, the internship is offered to high school seniors wanting to tell stories in innovative and creative ways. Julia Du, now a rising college freshman, was selected for the Benjamin Lawless Internship this past year. Julia is from Afton, MN and had previously interned with the Smithsonian in the Office of Fellowships and Internships (OFI).  She will be attending the University of Chicago this coming Fall. The following was written by Julia, as she reflects upon and tells her own story: 

Marilyn Graskowiak, Barbara Fahs Charles and Julia Du share a laugh

In my time as a Benjamin Lawless intern, I had the honor of working with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC). APAC’s mission of enriching the appreciation of America’s Asian Pacific heritage and empowering Asian Pacific American communities meshed exceptionally well with my goals. When I applied for the Lawless internship, my main objective was to learn more about Chinese exclusion in the late nineteenth century and to better understand how to bring the story of Chinese Americans to a greater audience.

On my very first day with APAC, I attended the 1882 Symposium, an annual gathering of Chinese American museums, historical societies, and other agencies. This was the perfect start to my internship, as I was introduced to the various ways that these organizations increase public awareness of Chinese exclusion. I was especially intrigued by the Tenement Museum’s presentation on their digital Your Story, Our Story (YSOS) project. Calling upon the American public to upload pictures of items illustrating their families’ stories of migration, YSOS emphasizes how disparate, intensely personal objects can be used to tell a broader historical narrative, drawing upon Mr. Lawless’s tactic of focusing on content-rich stories over dusty artifacts. One YSOS submission that stood out to me in particular was a photo of a one room schoolhouse. Contained in this unassuming picture was the experience of growing up as Chinese American in Jim Crow Mississippi, a time when white, black, and Chinese children were all forced to attend separate schools. Prior to this, I had never given much thought to how Asian Americans have navigated the traditional black-white racial binary of the United States – even as I am the daughter of Chinese immigrants.

Julia with her APAC mentor, Lawrence Davis

Interning with APAC has also introduced me to new ideas of what exactly constitutes a “museum.” Mr. Lawless revolutionized how we envision exhibits, and APAC, I believe, builds on that spirit of innovation. Being without a permanent gallery space, APAC has produced groundbreaking museum experiences and digital initiatives. I spent much of my internship contributing to an upcoming digital project about the efforts of student activists to introduce Asian American studies (AAS) at their colleges. This project will blossom into an infographic series detailing past student activism for AAS and a resource bank for future student activists on the APAC website. I assisted in tracking down colleges with prominent AAS student activism and then documenting the history of that activism. Given that I will be entering college this fall, the AAS project has been especially eye-opening with regards to the influence of Asian American student organizations. I plan to make good use of that knowledge in my time at the University of Chicago.

My Lawless internship was truly an enlightening experience. Not only was my original goal pertaining to Chinese exclusion met, several of my pre-existing assumptions were challenged and made all the better for it. I have become more aware of my position as an Asian American while also reexamining how museums can reinvent themselves to reach a broader audience. None of this could have happened without the generous support of the Benjamin Lawless Internship Founders and the Asian Pacific American Center. Thank you all for allowing me this unparalleled opportunity to discover and share historically overlooked stories. As I prepare for the collegiate chapter of my life, I look forward to living up to the prestigious standards associated with Mr. Lawless and the Smithsonian Institution.