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America on the Move
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Getting to Work
 
Izumizaki family in strawberry field with orchard, Pajaro Valley, California
Izumizaki family in strawberry field with orchard, Pajaro Valley, California

In order to show a commercially based agricultural economy and to highlight the role of Chinese men in the workforce, I suggested that the Watsonville field be made to look like an early apple orchard, with strawberries planted between the trees, and that the scene be peopled with cast figures representing the workers in the field. In order to do interplanting, which I thought would visually suggest a landscape and community in the process of changing, the scene needed to be set in the 1890s. That made it possible to show Chinese workers, but also talk about the changing nature of the workforce in the area, because Japanese men began to take over in the valley’s orchards in the late 1890s.

And that’s what we decided to do.

Then came the task of turning what I’d learned from books into an accurate, three-dimensional setting. What would an 1890s apple orchard look like? Before I took the job with America on the Move, if you’d asked me that question, I’d have said “Who cares?” But part of the joy of working on a large exhibition project is that you get to research the strangest things, and you get to discover that thinking about apples and strawberries and sugar beets can be completely absorbing, and can make you think about the practice of history, and how to know the past.

Thinking about Theory

As a grad student in the 1990s, I studied the ways that historians did history, and an interdisciplinary approach—for example, something that draws on anthropology, literary theory, and a wide range of sources—was one method we examined in depth. One of the strands of interdisciplinary theory comes from the work of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. He popularized the idea of “bricolage,” which literally means something made or put together using whatever materials happen to be available. In academic circles, the idea of bricolage is often used more positively than that definition might suggest. It’s used to suggest the process by which scholars draws from all kinds of different sources to create a sense of the world around them. I often thought about the idea of bricolage when I was working to try to get the orchard right, because I drew on images and sources in ways that pieced together a picture from the materials at hand. The big difference between my bricolage and the dictionary’s was that I spent a lot of time looking for my materials in a wide range of places— they weren’t just to hand.

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