Hmong Cultural Center Opens New Museum
Courtesy Hmong Cultural Center
The Hmong Cultural Center officially launched its new museum in a dedicated storefront at University and Western in St. Paul on December 2, 2021. The location is likely the first stand-alone museum focused on teaching about Hmong culture and history in Minnesota. The official launch was delayed after an unfortunate act of vandalism in September 2021 that received extensive media coverage.
Hmong Cultural Center staff say that the vandalism and other recent hate crimes directed toward Hmong and Asian Americans in Minnesota and elsewhere show the need for a substantive museum that teaches visitors about the richness of culture and history and the achievements of Hmong Minnesotans. “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.
Sieng Lee is an artist and consultant who has helped the Hmong Cultural Center with museum design and layout the past several years. Lee said he worked with the Hmong Cultural Center on the best way to utilize the museum space. He also designed the “We Are Hmong Minnesota” exhibit for the History Center in 2015. “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.
Hmong Cultural Center Director of Programs Mark Pfeifer said the original museum space of three rooms in the center’s main offices on the second floor of the office building at Western/University was just not large enough to serve school and other groups coming in to view the exhibits, and this led to the plans for expansion. He said that the receipt of some large grants in the past two years from Arts Midwest, the Luce Foundation and Google led to the much-needed enlarged museum space. “The museum has different focus areas,” he continued. Those areas include the basics of Hmong culture and history including the structure of the Hmong language, the clans, the Hmong New Year, Weddings and Funerals, religion, sports, food, folk art, Hmong embroidery and Hmong musical instruments. Describing some of the exhibits at the museum, Pfeifer talked about the large embroidery wall that is part of the museum space. “Some show the Hmong folk tales, the Hmong traditional way of life, others show leaving Laos,” he said.”
Pfeifer noted that one of his favorite parts of the museum is the interactive 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 two years ago, the Hmong Cultural Center Museum received an award for its interactive exhibit of musical instruments. Also featured in the museum are interactive exhibits of the ceremonial Hmong folk art forms that the center has taught the community since its founding in 1992 – these include the Qeej instrument and Hmong Wedding and Funeral Songs.
Additional focus areas of the museum including the Hmong involvement in the CIA’s Secret War in Laos, Milestones of Hmong History in Minnesota, Hmong Contributions to Minnesota and Hmong Minnesotan Social Justice Movements. In addition, a small theater area screens classic documentaries on Hmong history related to the War in Laos and the transition to life in the United States in the early 1980s.
Working with Hmong-origin schoolteachers, the Hmong Cultural Center has developed curriculums based on Minnesota’s K-12 Social Studies and Arts Standards for school groups visiting the museum.
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 or visit hmongcc.org for further information.
Photos by Brian Xiong. The group pictured is from Brooklyn Park Central High School.