Class project connects students to their culture

Alex Khem and John Son

Alex Khem, left, and John Son with Southeast Asian textile

By Zachary Nelson
Photos by Marc Studer

John Son, a business major at the University of Washington Bothell, recently learned more about his family’s heritage during a class called Visual Cultures of Southeast Asia and Its Diaspora: Objects As Story Tellers.

He and fellow students were invited to work with Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture staff members as they catalog a collection of more than 50,000 objects embodying various traditions and cultures through time. As part of an ongoing project called Decolonizing Collections, the students also researched and made presentations about select artifacts to museum visitors.

Son and his student partner, Alex Khem, a communications and media studies major, chose to study a skirt Khmer women wore on special occasions such as weddings.

Students present projects at the Burke

Students present projects at the Burke.

"The reason we picked our object is because we feel that our generation hasn’t been fully committed to engaging with the Cambodian community here in Washington,” said Son. “I think that more generations of Cambodians will see that connecting with cultural heirlooms and talking about them with the public is a good way to make social change.”

"At the same time,” he said, “I hope this object helps the younger generation understand where their history began and how it ended up here.”

For the presentation, the museum gave Son and Khem a skirt from Southeast Asia.

Raissa DeSmet, the lecturer in UW Bothell’s School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences who teaches the course, is collaborating with the Burke as it prepares to move its collections into a new building in 2018. DeSmet also is adjunct curator of Asian culture at the Burke.

The museum is committed to storing objects in culturally sensitive ways and allowing community members to commemorate valued artifacts, DeSmet said. “The Burke is very much in alignment with my own scholarly and personal interests. This museum is conscious of its colonial roots, and it’s trying to do ethnology differently in the light of that history.

John Son with Cambodian artifact

Alex Khem with artifact fabric

"We then connect students with the Burke museum and train them to be stewards of objects that are culturally significant,” DeSmet said.

“The professor is in touch with what’s going on in Southeast Asia,” Khem added, “and it’s incredible to learn from her perspective because she actually cares. It’s more than just a class; it’s about preserving the future of our culture.”

UW Bothell student research from the Decolonizing Collections project will also be used to inform how the museum displays cultural artifacts in its new building, due to open in 2019.

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