Chinese Railroad Workers Project exhibit honored by California Preservation Foundation

crrw logoA traveling historical and photographic exhibit sponsored by the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford, “Chinese Workers and the Railroad Traveling Exhibit,” has won two awards from the California Preservation Foundation: the 2019 Preservation Design Award in the Interpretive Exhibits category and a Trustees Award for Excellence.

The exhibit commemorated the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, a 1,912-mile track that connected the eastern United States with the Pacific Coast. The railroad’s western section was built almost entirely by thousands of Chinese laborers who, according to Stanford historian and project co-director GORDON H. CHANG, earned less than their white counterparts and undertook more dangerous work.

Until recently, this period of history has been largely left out of historical storytelling. The exhibit offers a new understanding to a pivotal period of American and Californian history, according to project co-director and English Professor SHELLEY FISHER FISHKIN.

In addition, the exhibit is designed to bring that narrative into schools, libraries, community centers, museums and other venues that might not be able to produce such a display on their own, said Fishkin, who is also the director of Stanford’s American Studies Program.

Panel from the Chinese Railroad Workers exhibit
Panel from the exhibit; click on image to enlarge

The exhibit, which is bilingual in Chinese and English, debuted at Stanford in the atrium of the Packard Electrical Engineering Building and was on display last spring at Tresidder Memorial Union. It has since traveled to venues around the United States, including such government centers as Boston City Hall and the Utah State Capital; public libraries in California, Ohio, Michigan and Utah; higher education institutions, including the University of Massachusetts Boston, San Diego State University and Menlo College; and museums, including the California State Railroad Museum, the Stanford Mansion in Sacramento, the Niles Canyon Railway Museum in Fremont and Blackhawk Museum in Danville. It has also been featured at Chinese New Year festivals and other Asian festivals around the country. This, June it was on display at Wuyi University in Jiangmen, China.

In making its decision for the two prizes, the jury at the California Preservation Foundation noted the importance of sharing this history, stating, “What was really impressive about it was the scalability to different sizes of exhibits, and how it touches on important topics. It’s great that it was designed to travel. It brings real truth and life to the history.”

The exhibit was sponsored by the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, co-directed by Chang, the Olive H. Palmer Professor in the Humanities and professor of history, and Fishkin, the Joseph S. Atha Professor in Humanities. The exhibit includes contemporary photographs taken by Beijing-based photographer Li Ju and was organized with the help of Guangxi University Press.

MAI WANG, a bilingual Stanford graduate student in English, assisted with the writing and translation of the exhibit text. Others involved in the exhibit include BARBARA VOSS, associate professor of anthropology; HILTON OBENZINGER, associate director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford; ROLAND HSU, research director of the project; and Monica and Adrian Arima, supporters of the project, who as volunteers helped enable the exhibit to travel around the country.

Read more on the California Preservation Foundation website.