Indian-Americans as doctors, engineers, motel owners, taxi drivers and spelling bee champs are just a few takeaways from a new exhibition at the Smithsonian.

Looking closer, though, curators are probing the history behind certain cultural stereotypes of this population of 3.3 million Americans in a new exhibit that opens on February 27.

The influx of Indian doctors, for example, began in the 1960s as the U.S. needed more physicians for its new Medicare system, and immigration law opened the door to those with medical training. Later, the American inventors of Hotmail, the Pentium chip and fibre optics were all of Indian origin, perhaps because H-1B visas for engineers were a U.S. effort to remain competitive with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

From culture to history

“Beyond Bollywood-Indian Americans Shape the Nation” is the Smithsonian’s first major exhibit to examine the history of Indian immigration to the United States and the influence of Indian-Americans. The exhibit is on view for at least a year and is expected to travel to 15 cities through 2019. It’s a story that dates to the first Indians arriving in 1790, those who helped build the nation’s railroads and farms, and those who fought for citizenship when immigration from Asia was discouraged.

There are also more recent contributions of leading Indian-American writers, entertainers, athletes and a fashion designer favoured by first lady Michelle Obama. Curator Masum Momaya said her team used Indian-American stereotypes as an entry point for visitors to learn more.“We want to take people beyond some of the things they know and have seen in popular culture to the deeper and more nuanced history,” she said. So in a subtle way, curators show the current debate over immigration has been debated before. The exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History is part of a $2 million ongoing heritage project at the centre. It will also help bring new items into the Smithsonian’s collection to represent Indian-Americans.

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