Hindu swastika spurs discussion


Editor’s note: This corrects the fourth paragraph.

Controversy flared up at Pretend City, a children’s museum in Irvine, when a few visitors recently complained about a Hindu swastika woven on a tapestry in one of the museum’s exhibits.

The offended visitors apparently were unaware that the swastika is an old religious symbol in Hinduism and that many other cultures around the globe revere it, among them Native Americans. The swastika, however, was co-opted most notoriously by Nazi Germany as the centerpiece of the Third Reich’s flag.

The tapestry is part of the museum’s “Home” exhibit, which is currently displaying a Hindu family’s belongings. The exhibit rotates every six months and takes cultural objects from local family homes and displays them to the public, allowing Orange County visitors to see how different families live. The last family was Chinese and Vietnamese, and, in late November, the museum will put on an Orthodox Jewish family exhibit.


The tapestry had been on display since July 27, but was taken down temporarily on Aug. 31. On Wednesday, the museum put the tapestry back up and posted a related statement on Facebook, where much of the clamor about the swastika had been expressed through on-line comments that sparked a debate on the importance of education and cultural awareness.

“The complaints we initially received about the tapestry helped us realize that the static explanation of this symbol in the Home was not sufficient to effectively educate our guests about this subject,” Pam Shambra, Pretend City’s president, said on Facebook.

She went to say: “We have since consulted with experts, reviewed the practices of other children’s museums, and reviewed the practices of other early childhood education programs. With the help of the Irvine Shakha of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, we are now in the process of developing hands-on programming to help children learn the multiple meanings of symbols and the specific, and long, history of the Hindu swastika.”

It is an accepted battle, Shambra said, for every museum to tackle touchy subjects and educate the public properly.

“We had heard from people that it was unpleasant to them,” she told the Pilot. “We felt that there was probably a better way we could communicate the symbol. We took it down and immediately started working on a better way to display it.”

Shambra said that the museum realized that it could approach the educational aspect of the artifacts better by enhancing the room with “extensive signage and hands-on programming to help children understand the difference between different symbols.”

The museum, which is completely hands-on and allows children to learn through “whole-body experience,” believes it is important to show different customs and ways of life, especially since the families are people living in their own community.

Besides the tapestry, the current Home includes many different ways to learn about Hindu culture.

“For example, the family that’s in there now loves to dance,” she said. “They put on Hindu costumes and dance on a regular basis. We outline what they’re all about — their customs, rituals and celebrations.”

The tapestry’s original critics have since removed their comments from the Facebook page, but its proponents have not, adding supportive words on a daily basis. The digital discussion revealed a loyalty within museum-goers and a dedication to cultural objectivism.

One of them, Joanna Ellis-Escobar posted this comment: “Thank you for being an institution that is holding steadfastly to promoting both tolerance and education. How can we hope to be a society raising ... intelligent, critically thinking children if we don’t instill the intrigue within them by demonstrating the very fact: knowledge is power? Kudos [to] Pretend City for not giving in to the pressure and ignorance of those demanding the permanent removal of the tapestry.”

Shambra believes that the tapestry debacle proved to be a learning experience for the year-old nonprofit museum.

“I think [the discussion] brought to light some things that were concerns for individuals,” she said. “It turned out to be rich conversation.”