Summary

Historically one of the oldest and most vibrant, continuously-present ethnic communities of New York City, Manhattan’s Chinatown now faces the threat of social and symbolic erasure. As the forces of gentrification and ‘business improvement’ projects continue to expand into the contemporary boundaries of Chinatown, the twin pressures of rapidly rising real estate prices and governmental interventions steadily encourage the exodus of longstanding Chinatown residents and the arrival of newer categories of residents. While it may be true, to a large extent, that the product of particular political, economic and social dynamics, it is also true that these changes are taking place within a context of cultural amnesia with regards to the experiences and contributions of Chinese Americans toward the social, cultural and economic life of New York City. It is also worth asking if it might ever be worthwhile to try to fight back against this kind of amnesia.

While pioneering institutions like the Museum of Chinese in America have made, and continue to make, important contributions toward communicating the long and complex history of Chinese Americans in New York City, there are also limits to the reach of traditional modes of public history and archival management, particularly in an era characterized by an ever-increasing array of digital communication media that compete for the attention and interest of everyday individuals. However, it is also hoped that some of these same digital technologies hold the potential for enriching and expanding the reach of historical materials. In this spirit, the Asian/Pacific/American (A/P/A) Institute of New York University, in cooperation with the Museum of the Chinese in America, proposes to develop a digital, multi-platform, augmented reality (AR) program that allows users to engage with digital reproductions of carefully selected archival materials from the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA). Specifically, we hope to create a web-based platform that is integrated with smartphone and mobile computing technologies in order to provide a real-time, interactive experiences for students, tourists and others interested in learning more about Chinatown's past. By tagging materials with geographic information system (GIS) data alongside other metadata, it will be possible to present users with a combination of related archival materials as activated by their location and orientation relative to historically significant and documented sites. To put it simply, at its heart, the proposed project seeks to explore the potential for bringing the forgotten histories of Chinatown to the public in a dynamic and accessible way.

As the largest national museum dedicated to the Chinese American experience, the Museum of Chinese in America has a large collection of archival materials - documents, artifacts, photographs, printed materials and the like - totaling more than 1200 linear feet in volume and spanning from about 1800 to the present date. This project seeks to make selective use of documents that will contribute to providing a rich, digital and mobile experience engaging with archival materials as they are brought together by space and time. To this end, the priority will be on finding documents that are linked by relational information such as a shared address or the name of an individual. Further enriched by geospatial data, clusters of documents and images will be mobilized into virtual and augmented space to created a real-time and real-space interactive learning experience.

This project will speak to much more than members of any particular ethnic groups. By using new technologies to address the general problem of profound and profoundly consequential cultural amnesia, Digital Chinatown will not only point to emerging ways of integrating new technologies with archives. By bridging the past with the future, it will also speak to the possibility of agency in the face of systemic erasure and marginalization and suggest new directions for civic communication and participation.

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