By Jan Willms
The Hmong Cultural Center Museum at 375 University Ave. in St. Paul is not trying to be the Hmong Smithsonian, according to Mark Pfeifer, director of programs at the Cultural Center.
Instead, he said the goals of the museum are to teach the basics of culture and history to people who don’t really know much about the Hmong people and culture. Located in the Hmong Cultural Center which opened in 1992, the museum is celebrating an expansion of space and exhibits.
The re-opening of the larger museum space was delayed by a vandalism attack in September, but everything is now ready for the public to enjoy.
“This museum is not just for the Hmong people, but for everyone to come and learn more about Hmong history, art and culture,” said Txongpao Lee, executive director.
Board chair Shuly Her said the Hmong Cultural Center is the longest running nonprofit that specifically supports the preservation of Hmong culture in the Twin Cities. “Having the center in the Twin Cities is very important, because it supports our political and social culture, as well,” she said. “For myself, growing up traditionally as a Hmong woman and also being exposed to Western culture, it was hard for me to navigate both. Having a center like this is important for our youth because we are losing a lot of what being Hmong means to us.”
Her said having the museum is also important to the elders, so that they can see the preservation of what is left of Hmongness. “This is a good starting point for those who have grown away from being Hmong to come back home,” she added.
Maiyia Kasouaher, the board secretary, said she finds the Hmong Cultural Center Museum to be the first place people can come to find out about the Hmong culture. “It is operated by folks who identify as Hmong, as well,” she stated. Kasouaher explained that although people can Google for information, it is more of an experience for people to come in and view exhibits in person.
Sieng Lee is a consultant who did the museum layout and design. The artist and designer said he worked with the Hmong Cultural Center on the best way to utilize the museum space. He also designed We Are Hmong Minnesota for the History Center.
“The museum is unique in its small scale and grassroots approach for people who want to have the museum experience in a place more comfortable, and they can then go on to other museum experiences,” he said.
Pfeifer said the original museum space of three rooms was just not large enough to serve the groups coming in to view the exhibits, and this led to the expansion. He said that the very fortunate approval of some large grants in the past year led to the much-needed enlarged museum space.
“The museum has different focus areas,” he continued. Those areas include history, the structure of the Hmong language, the clans, the Secret War, folk art, Hmong history in Minnesota, Hmong embroidery and Hmong musical instruments.
Describing some of the exhibits at the museum, Pfeifer talked about the large embroidery presentations donated over the years. “Some show the Hmong folk tales, the Hmong traditional way of life, others show leaving Laos,” he said. “All are related to Hmong history. The Hmong were in China in 2500 BC. They fought with the CIA in 1968. There is a lot of information about their involvement with the war.”
Pfeifer cites one of his favorite parts of the museum is the exhibit that focuses on Hmong traditional folk arts. He offered as an example the two-stringed violin, one of the Hmong traditional instruments. “You can watch a video to hear what the instrument sounds like,” he noted. He said that years ago, the Hmong Cultural Center Museum received an award for its interactive exhibit of musical instruments.
The expanded museum features documentaries for visitors to watch. One film is “Disappearing World (1972)” which is described as follows: “A rarely seen documentary from the early 1970s in which anthropologist Jacques Lemoine looks at the situation of the Hmong in Laos. The film visits Hmong villages and shows the heavy losses Hmong have endured in the Laotian Civil War. The documentary also shows the Hmong in American-backed refugee camps and includes segments on the traditional lifestyle the Hmong are trying to preserve.”
Another documentary available at the museum is “Becoming American.” This film follows a family of preliterate tribal farmers as they flee Laos, await resettlement in a refugee camp in Thailand, and travel to and resettle in the United States.
There are archives of Hmong newspapers going back to the 1990s. These include the Hmong Times, Hmong Today and the Hmong Pages.
Numerous panels are on display, showing many aspects of the Hmong involvement in the Secret War. There are also panels showing symbols used for embroidery and panels showing the Hmong wedding and funeral music. New panels have been added with the museum’s expansion. “It is quite a process to make one panel, and we have worked with scholars over the years on the content, and Museology has helped make the panels,” Pfeifer said. “The panels cost about $3,000 each, and we started with 10 and are now up to 30.” He said the panels have been added in cycles, as funding has permitted.
Other exhibits at the museum include showing where Hmong people live around the world, dialects spoken in the United States, the traditional Hmong religion and Shamanism, the 18 clans and the Hmong writing system developed in the 1950s. There are panels displaying the first story in the Minneapolis Star about the Hmong in January 1979, a 1982 photo at Liberty Plaza of Hmong children building igloos in the snow, and a 1998 story about Hmong social activism. “This story was about the Hmong protest against the KQRS deejay for making racist comments,” Pfeifer said.
And there is so much more: The first Hmong politician, the history of Hmong businesses along University Avenue, statistics for the average age and family size of the Hmong people in Minnesota.
Pfeifer said the Hmong Cultural Center Museum has benefited from many funders, but he especially wanted to thank Google, Arts West and the Luce Foundation for their help.
The Hmong Cultural Center Museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and weekends by appointment. Admission is $5 per person. Pre-arranged group tours are available at a negotiated fee. Call (651) 917-9937 for further information.
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