By Jan Willms
The Hmong Cultural Center Museum located 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 museum’s goals were to teach the basics of culture and history to people who didn’t know much about Hmong people and culture. Located in the Hmong Cultural Center which opened in 1992, the museum celebrates an expansion of space and exhibits.
The reopening of the museum’s largest space was delayed by a vandalism attack in September, but everything is now ready for the public.
“This museum is not only for the Hmong people, but for everyone to come and learn more about Hmong history, art and culture,” said Txongpao Lee, executive director.
Board Chairman Shuly Her said the Hmong Cultural Center is the oldest non-profit organization that specifically supports the preservation of Hmong culture in the Twin Cities. “Having the center in the Twin Cities is very important, because it also supports our political and social culture,” she said. “For me, having grown up traditionally as a Hmong woman and also being exposed to Western culture, it was difficult for me to navigate the two. Having a center like this is important for our young people because we are losing a lot of what it means to be Hmong for us.
She said having the museum is also important for the elders, so that they can see the preservation of what remains of Hmongness. “It is a good starting point for those who have given up Hmong status to come home,” she added.
Maiyia Kasouaher, the secretary of the board, said she found the Hmong Cultural Center Museum to be the first place people could come to experience Hmong culture. “It is also operated by people who identify as Hmong,” she said. Kasouaher explained that while people can search for information on Google, it is more of an experience for people to enter and see the exhibits in person.
Sieng Lee is a consultant who carried out the layout and design of the museum. The artist and designer said he worked with the Hmong Cultural Center on how best to use the museum space. He also designed We Are Hmong Minnesota for the History Center.
“The museum is unique in its small-scale, grassroots approach for people who want the museum experience in a more comfortable place, and they can then move on to other museum experiences,” he said. .
Pfeifer said the original three-room museum space was simply not large enough to accommodate groups coming to view the exhibits, which led to the expansion. He said that the very happy approval of some large grants over the past year has led to much needed museum space expansion.
“The museum has different areas of interest,” he continued. These areas include history, Hmong language structure, clans, secret warfare, folk art, Hmong history in Minnesota, Hmong embroidery, and Hmong musical instruments.
Describing some of the museum’s exhibits, Pfeifer spoke of the great embroidery displays given over the years. “Some show Hmong folk tales, the traditional Hmong way of life, others show the departure from Laos,” he said. “All of them are linked to the history of the Hmong. The Hmong were in China in 2500 BC. They fought with the CIA in 1968. There is a lot of information about their involvement in the war.
Pfeifer cites one of his favorite parts of the museum is the exhibition which focuses on traditional Hmong folk arts. He gave as an example the two-string violin, one of the traditional Hmong instruments. “You can watch a video to hear what the instrument looks like,” he noted. He said that years ago, the Hmong Cultural Center Museum received an award for its interactive musical instrument exhibition.
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 examines the situation of the Hmong in Laos. The film visits Hmong villages and shows the heavy losses the Hmong suffered during the Laotian civil war. The documentary also shows the Hmong in US-backed refugee camps and includes segments of the traditional way of life the Hmong are trying to preserve.
Another documentary available at the museum is “Becoming American”. This film follows an illiterate tribal farming family as they flee Laos, await resettlement in a refugee camp in Thailand, and travel and resettle in the United States.
There are archives of Hmong newspapers dating 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’s involvement in the secret war. There are also panels showing symbols used for embroidery and panels showing Hmong marriage and funeral music. New panels have been added with the expansion of the museum. “It’s quite a process to create a panel, and we’ve worked with academics over the years on the content, and museology has helped create the panels,” Pfeifer said. “The panels cost about $ 3,000 each, and we started with 10 and are now at 30.” He said the panels were added in cycles, as funding allowed.
The museum’s other exhibits show where the Hmong live around the world, the dialects spoken in the United States, traditional Hmong religion and shamanism, the 18 clans, and the Hmong writing system developed in the 1950s. panels displaying the first Minneapolis Star story about the Hmong in January 1979, a 1982 photo in 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 DJ for making racist comments,” Pfeifer said.
And there’s more: the first Hmong politician, the history of Hmong businesses along University Avenue, statistics on the average age and family size of Minnesota Hmongs.
Pfeifer said the Hmong Cultural Center Museum has benefited from many donors, but most of all he wanted to thank Google, Arts West and the Luce Foundation for their help.
The Hmong Cultural Center Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday and on weekends by appointment. Admission is $ 5 per person. Pre-organized group tours are available at a negotiated price. Call (651) 917-9937 for more information.
By Jan Willms