by Liz Mehrmann
Gabbie Mangaser is developing a program at the Burke Museum that connects Southeast Asian identifying visitors to their cultural heritage through the museum’s collection. Participants choose a piece that resonates with them, and create a deliverable of their choice (such as a blog post, social media post, or poster to display in the studio) to gain a greater understanding of their cultural roots.
Gabbie Mangaser grew up in Lake Stevens, WA; Chris Pratt is also from there, she feels obligated to mention. The only thing she knew about her graduate thesis, when she started, is that she wanted to explore her cultural heritage.
As a first-generation Filipino American, she grew up surrounded by pieces her parents had brought over from the Philippines in the 1980s. These objects were something she began thinking about more during her time as an undergraduate of Anthropology. During that time, she took classes on Historical Archaeology, Medical Anthropology, and Visual Anthropology. Gabbie found it empowering to see these classes taught by people of color, connecting their own heritage to the content, and felt inspired to explore her own cultural heritage.
She started exploring the issue of what it means to decolonize museums. What does it mean for her to decolonize, and how does she relate it back to her heritage? She started thinking about those objects in her house, animist religions of the Philippines, the Roman-Catholic influence on Filipino culture, and how Spanish colonialism and U.S. Imperialism had impacted all of these things. Her undergraduate thesis, “Proposing a New Method for Decolonization: Filipino American Home Archaeology + Reflections Toward a Fil-Am Ontology”, studied what it means to be a Filipino American through utilizing visual anthropology.
Gabbie worked with Americorps, at a Seattle social work agency that works with Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. As a youth self-sufficiency and financial literacy aide, she organized field trips to colleges and organizations. The position made her explore what the needs of urban Asian American communities were, as opposed to her own suburban upbringing in Lake Stevens. For example, Gabbie had grown up visiting museums, so she was surprised when her students did not want to visit those spaces. They had Southeast Asian cultural objects, afterall. But in a state of the art building, behind glass, they felt cold and sterile. It was a place those students did not see themselves.
It was when Gabbie’s parents visited her at the Burke, where she currently works as a Collections assistant, that was a real connecting moment. Her parents explored the collection shelves and recognized several objects, sparking memories and stories about their lives back in the Philippines. While Gabbie’s mother was confused as to why a broom would be in the collection (“It’s boring, you can get these anywhere!”), it was meaningful for Gabbie to witness her parents engaging with the museum in such a personal way.
They also threatened to donate their own broom, which Gabbie assured them The Burke did not need.
Gabbie is in the thick of designing and implementing her program.
Some major challenges:
Finding participants. As a result, she broadened her program from just Filipino cultural objects to all of Southeast Asia. The program was initially written for students, but has since expanded to faculty and alumni.
Some snacks that inspire:
Honey-battered frozen chicken nuggets in the air fryer, sprinkled with garlic salt, chives, mozzarella cheese, and bacon bits.
Some advice to students beginning to explore their thesis topic:
Thesis can be taxing emotionally and even physically, so choose a topic that you’re passionate about so it is all the more bearable! Also, every week, remind yourself that the process of learning through your research or project is just as important, if not more, than the product itself!