The inside of a history museum may seem a strange place for a photographer to document contemporary urban culture. The technical obstacles of dimly lit interiors and reflective display glass aside, museums are deliberately constructed narratives, executive authority deciding what story is told and in what way, the exact opposite of a genuine, emergent modern culture. Yet it is precisely this intentionality that makes Hanoi’s Museum of the Revolution such an interesting study.
The museum was established in 1959 (and by all appearances, updated minimally since), just four years after the Geneva Conference declared North Vietnam’s sovereignty and six years before American involvement in the Indochina War escalated the conflict into what America remembers it as today, and as such, marks a moment in history rare to any nation, but especially this one: a chance for a newly independent and modern Vietnam, free for the first time in its history from foreign occupation, free from Chinese, from French, from Japanese rule, to build its own narrative. It was the first chance for a new Vietnam to tell its own history to its own people, from its own perspective and to set the tone for its own future.
Though usually empty of visitors today, watching the few Vietnamese tourists or school children peruse the well-worn displays, one can’t help but imagine the museum’s founders, in the rare position to contribute to how the Vietnamese people will think of themselves and their history from here onward, setting down to curate their exhibits and weave that narrative. An examination of the museum today reveals a few themes, a few threads of the Vietnamese story, which the revolutionary forefathers appeared eager to impart on the national consciousness –
(A disclaimer: I make no claims about the veracity or falsehood of this version of history, I neither decry them as propaganda, nor tout them as truth – I merely observe, and find interesting, how the museum’s curatorial choices send a few distinct and particular messages about the then “new” Vietnam)
The Vietnamese revolution is one of the people: A wooden bell used as a village alarm system, a hand drill used to make gunstocks, a mortar and pestle for mixing herbal medicines – the halls were replete with minor artifacts of the revolution, tools used by peasant revolutionaries, glorifying their contributions to Vietnam’s struggle – along with photographs depicting farmers, laborers, women in volunteer fighting brigades.
The new Vietnam is part of a greater movement: Two rooms of the Museum of the Revolution are dedicated to solidarity gifts received from other socialist governments, socialist movements, or countries recently freed from colonial rule. A model of Sputnik from Moscow, a miniature lighthouse from Poland, a tray from the Sri Lankan Communist Party, a brass plate from Algeria, these noble gifts-of-state sit beside what to another audience are the most quotidian of artifacts – objects and photographs from the American anti-war movement of the 1960′s and 70′s – protest literature, peace beads, a peace symbol coffee mug – the kind of tossed-out junk that Westerners overlook in thrift stores every day, but which speaks a clear message of solidarity to a Vietnamese citizen visiting the museum during wartime or decades after.
The new Vietnam is a modern, industrial nation: a television assembled at a newly built manufacturing plant, a street lamp head made at a Vietnamese engineering works, photographs of power plants and oil wells – object and image telling the viewer that with the revolution comes material progress and prosperity.