On Whitney Avenue, directly across from Fashionista, is a museum I had never heard of, nor noticed, during my three years living in New Haven. The New Haven Museum is the type of place you go to on field trips in elementary school, but remains largely neglected by the city’s more mature residents. During my hour-long stroll through the four wings of the museum, I saw only one couple enter its doors. Too bad, this stately building houses a wealth of history and trivia about Yale’s home and one of America’s oldest cities.
Until April 30 the museum will house “Both Here and There: Yale-China and a Century of Transformative Encounters.” The exhibit occupies two rooms on the upper floor of the museum — the larger room showcases photos and artifacts, while the smaller projects rare black-and-white footage of early twentieth-century China.
Although Yale-China has created many long-standing institutions — student exchanges, teaching fellowships, health programs — the focus of the exhibit is on a smaller, more personal scale. Among thousands of stories, the exhibit showcases nine personal profiles that examine Yale-China from an Eastern perspective, a Western perspective and somewhere in between. Some of the profiles even include voice recordings from the people themselves. On one CD, BJ Elder, author of “The Oriole’s Song,” reads selections from her memoir about her childhood in Changsha, China. As she reflects on her two names, American and Chinese, we realize that her childhood experiences in China have lingered into her adulthood, presenting lifelong questions of identity and perspective.
The charm of the exhibit lies in such intimate glimpses into people’s lives. The collection of artifacts shows the wear of age and of human touch. One artifact is a college student’s homework assignment for an English language class. After reading “The Road Not Taken,” he was asked which road he would have chosen. In his handwritten essay, he explains in awkwardly formal yet grammatically perfect English that he would choose the “grassy new road because only with fear of failure are our dreams worthwhile.”
The theme of personal experience pervades the exhibit and the mission of Yale-China throughout its 110-year history. Unlike many missionary schools that sought to impose Western ideas on Chinese students, Yale-China attempted to foster mutual understanding and exchange. Through person-to-person interactions, friendships and grassroots efforts, Yale-China hopes to create life-changing experiences that ripple throughout the world.
The array of photographs on display present a snapshot-like history of the organization. Most are black and white, lending an air of age and history to even events as recent as 1980. One photo dates back to 1910, depicting a group of young Chinese men sitting in rows, as a group of young American men walk in the door. The juxtaposition of the Americans with their closely-cropped hair and the Chinese men with long braids down their backs is an eloquent depiction of the cultural differences that Yale-China strives to understand. Another photo from 1917 shows a group of Chinese students hunched over microscopes, this time with short Western-style haircuts — I wonder what kind of cultural transformations occurred in the intervening seven years.
In the 21st century, Yale enjoys a close relationship with China that is perhaps unparalleled by any other American university. The exhibit showcases the roots of this cross-cultural exchange and illustrates how it has evolved in the past century, rather than taking advantage of the opportunity to advertise for the organization.
Though the exhibition is small and the museum a modest trek from central campus, the New Haven Museum’s charming atmosphere will immediately make the trip less daunting. It’s certainly worth a visit.