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Seeing Agent Orange in the United States and Vietnam: Quilt of Tears
Leslie Reagan, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Grant details: https://securegrants.neh.gov/publicquery/main.aspx?f=1&gn=FT-230079-15
“Agent Orange, as Remembered in Vietnam’s Museums and International Film” (Conference/Institute/Seminar)
Title: “Agent Orange, as Remembered in Vietnam’s Museums and International Film”
Author: Leslie J. Reagan
Abstract: This paper focuses on the presence of Agent Orange in Vietnamese culture and memory. Not only is dioxin, the toxic byproduct of Agent Orange, found in Vietnamese soil, fish, plants, and human breast milk, but Vietnamese culture is steeped in Agent Orange. Just about every school child and every tourist in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) will visit the War Remnants Museum—a peace museum, a historical museum, and a museum that interprets, teaches, and constructs the history of the American War and, especially, the history of Agent Orange as a chemical weapon that harmed and continues to harm the Vietnamese people and Vietnamese children. This paper walks through the museum, stops at certain points in the Agent Orange exhibits, and then focuses on a surgical scene in the Agent Orange exhibit.
The photographs and objects that make up this particular section are an example of the warring themes in the museum’s exhibit of Agent Orange. The photographs and the exhibits overall drive home the message that the nation of Vietnam and the Vietnamese are victims of Agent Orange. At the same time, the museum subtly insists that the people disabled as a result of Agent Orange are not victims; they are active people, who have made lives for themselves. Yet, so many of the photographs—most taken by Western photographers—participate in what disabilities activists and scholars have named “the medical model” for they suggest that Western medicine and heroic surgery are the solution for disabled bodies. These large and prominently displayed images rely upon and project older Western narratives of disability that put people with unusual bodies on display as freaks in side shows or regarded them as pitiful beings in need of help. The presence and power of these images also suggest the difficulty of undermining those traditional views of people with disabilities, regardless of the intentions of museum curators.
Date Range: 6th International Conference on the History of Medicine in Southeast Asia, Jan. 13-15, 2016.
Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia