“I interpret the Hmong identity as being really diverse and intersectional, and there are so many different parts in an identity in general,” Mai Nhia Vang said on a recent Friday. After a long day working her job as the collections manager at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, she wound down with me in a Caribou Coffee in St. Paul. Vang is a second-generation Hmong American in her 30s. She’s aware of how different her experience has been from that of her parents. Defining a Hmong identity, she said, is “complicated.”
The wealth of different experiences that comprise the Hmong story is exactly why Vang founded the Hmong Museum: a passion project 10 years in the making. She now serves as the museum’s board chair.
The Hmong Museum is a project designed to “recognize and acknowledge the intersection between all things Hmong,” as the mission states and to preserve Hmong culture and history through connections with the Hmong community. From the beginning, the founders of the Hmong Museum wanted to reimagine what a museum space is and can be. So, for years, they have been working to collect personal belongings, cultural heirlooms and bring members of the Hmong community together. They want to record their oral histories, showcase their art and display the objects that tell the intergenerational stories of their lives in Minnesota.
“We’re trying to really document our history and our culture, as it’s evolving in real time,” fellow board member Kathy Mouacheupao said. “We call ourselves a museum without walls.”
To remain without walls, i.e. inclusive and responsive, they have been partnering with other local organizations, Hmong and otherwise, by putting on pilot programs at different venues in the Twin Cities. One of their biggest successes has been the Hmong Chronicles program, which pairs a Hmong elder storyteller with a contemporary Hmong artist. The idea was to celebrate and elevate oral storytelling, and to show how the Hmong community witnesses their own culture evolving locally.
“A lot of our history has been written by other communities. By the Chinese,” Mouacheupao said referring to past foreign conflicts, “they’re not talking about us in a very positive way. By French missionaries, and they were just trying to convert us. There is some documentation, but it hasn’t been, for some time, by us.” Mouacheupao sees local artists playing an integral part in reclaiming this narrative and preserving Hmong history, “artists serve as historians.”
“There’s also no Hmong word for ‘art.’ And I think that it’s not because there’s no self-expression or creativity, but more because a lot of the practices of our art is an expression of our culture, and is a part of the way that we live and do life. It’s our clothing, it’s our food, it’s our ceremonial song and music. And seriously, if you look at Hmong American art today, it’s truly the Hmong American experience that is being expressed, right?” Mouacheupao said.
Vang and her fellow board members also had young people in the Hmong community digitally archive the stories of their parents, and started Project Paj Ntaub, teaching traditional Hmong needlework.
“We got a lot of support from the community last year, and we’ve had great success connecting with younger Hmong community members,” fellow board member Chuayi Thao said.
The reason they are working so hard to bring the Hmong Museum to life – on top of their regular jobs, on top of their family lives, on top of everything – is because they feel the history they’re trying to preserve slipping between their fingers. If they don’t spearhead this work, they fear centuries of local Hmong history, tradition and pride might be lost to future generations. They’re not about to let that happen.
“Currently, more than 50 percent of our community is American-born, which is really significant,” Mouacheupao said. “In my mind, it raises an urgency for us to start doing a better job of documenting and collecting stories from our elders.”
The first step in a long journey
Vang’s story began in the early 2000s, when she was working on her undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota. One of her assignments during the course was to go and visit different cultural institutions in the Twin Cities. She decided to stay on campus and visit the University of Minnesota’s special archives. While she was there, immersed in four football fields’ worth of artifacts, manuscripts and texts, she came upon a book.
“It was a children’s book,” she said. “It was a handwritten manuscript, probably from over 100 years ago.”
She remembers being “transformed” as she examined that book, transported back in time. There were the marks made by a hand from a person who lived years and years ago, preserved long enough to reach her, a complete stranger standing in a place and time the author never conceived. The two of them were connected over the span of a century.
“He may not exist anymore in this world, but his handwriting was here. His book was here,” she said.
It was then that she thought of her own parents, who had come to the United States years ago as refugees. Vang had only heard bits and pieces of their stories, because the experience was traumatic and hard for them to revisit. She didn’t learn anything about this history growing up, because Hmong-American history wasn’t found in United States textbooks. Standing in those archives, she suddenly had the impulse to capture and preserve that journey – anything material that she could save from disappearing into the depths of time.
“If we can preserve it, then we can preserve their story, bring it to life – and it wouldn’t just be a myth in my head about what actually happened to them,” she said.
There are a few organizations in the Twin Cities that collect and preserve Hmong artifacts – jewelry, clothing, paj ntaub – but not up to a museum’s standards. She wanted a place where, a hundred years from now, a complete stranger could witness a piece of the Hmong experience.
Vang went on to attend graduate school and enroll in museum studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and later returned to Minnesota to carry out her vision. Unfortunately, she returned on the cusp of the recession. She spent four years working as a curator in Northern Minnesota before she could make her way back into the Twin Cities. During that time, she started making cold calls, including to Mouacheupao. Vang couldn’t create a museum on her own.
“I had never known her, but it turns out we have a lot of connections,” Mouacheupao said, and also a lot in common both growing up second generation Hmong-Americans and keeping a pulse on the community. “It was always about, ‘well when I’m at school, I’m really really Hmong, but when I’m at home, I’m so American, like, I’m accused of being American’,” Mouacheupao said of a common experience she relates to, “so it’s all about where and when, who gets to decide how we identify. There’s always been a desire and a need to explore that, and interrogate that, and accept that, and embrace that.” When Vang first reached out to her in 2011, Mouacheupao was the executive director for the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent. Now, with 20 years of experience working with nonprofits, Mouacheupao knows just how difficult fundraising and running a nonprofit can be. But with Vang at the Hmong Museum’s helm and the rest of the board, for Mouacheupao thinks this project has an advantage.
“The vision is just to be able to tell our story. It’s really what our mission is, too,” she said. “She’s really passionate about this idea of getting a museum together… and I think other people feel that too. You can’t not support a leader like that.”
Preserving identity after a long history with loss
The stories, objects and art that act as signposts for a culture, a history, a people, can sometimes be lost, bit by bit, by the simplest of actions.
“I remember my parents had these cassette tapes that they recorded with my dad’s family, in Laos,” Vang said. Her parents had stashed them somewhere for 30 years. A few years ago, Vang asked her father about them, and he told her they’d thrown them out last year. If she had known just a little bit earlier, she said, she would have kept them.
“It’s just these little things where parts of our history will deteriorate. It will naturally go away, or people will just throw them out, because there isn’t another place for them,” she said. Even a grandmother’s old scarf, she said, is an important part of who she is and where she comes from. That’s exactly the kind of artifact the Hmong Museum would want to have, to showcase. But unless that grandmother knows how valuable her history is, there’s nothing keeping her from just throwing it out.
It’s the same with oral traditions and the spoken word. When more and more Hmong youth are learning English as their primary language and not learning to speak Hmong, it’s harder for them to connect to their roots. Further, when communities lose Hmong elders, they lose those stories, those experiences and those traditions. And when young Hmong people don’t have an opportunity to see their culture portrayed with positivity and agency, they lose the opportunity to take pride and ownership in it.
“There’s a different kind of realization about how our culture makes us different and unique. And I think there’s a pride in it, but it comes from a sense of loss. Because there is this loss of culture, people are looking for things,” Mouacheupao said, “it’s a great place to start a relationship…I’m hoping that all these things can happen and will happen at the museum.”
The Hmong Museum is moving forward thanks to tireless grant-hunting, including a $20,000 grant from the Knight Arts Challenge, which they matched with small fundraisers and programs within a year. The hope of the board is that, eventually, they’ll have enough resources to have their own museum space, where they can actually collect artifacts and host exhibitions.
“When it comes down to the total physical stuff,” Mouacheupao said, “I’m trying to not just think about the Minnesota Historical Society, or the Minnesota History Center.” While she notes that those are “beautiful” spaces, she and her board members want to take all the good things about the current museum aesthetic and make them better.
“My personal desire is to have a space where artists can come and create. I want food there. I want it to be accessible. I don’t want it to feel like a place where people feel they are not welcomed there. I don’t want to it to be a stuffy – in some sections, I want artifacts that people can touch and play with,” she said.
That’s a goal for the near future. Mouacheupao says it’s 10 years away. Vang says it’s five. “People always ask, ‘where is the Hmong Museum?’” Thao said, “the hardest part, we know, is going to be finding that space.” But when that space does exist, the board members want it to redefine what people generally think of when they picture museums. Museums, as they’re known now, are mostly quiet, reflective spaces. They are also mostly white spaces.
“There’s not a lot of people of color in the museum field,” Vang said. She and the rest of the board look to the future and picture a museum that is uniquely Hmong.
“I imagine public spaces where the Hmong community and other communities can gather and just be together as a community, because I think that’s a thing that’s really important for the Hmong – is having this open space where they can just gather and be,” she said.
They also picture selling art from contemporary Hmong artists, and fostering an exchange of information between elders and young Hmong.
“We want it to be a space where knowledge is reciprocal. Hmong is much larger than who we are as individuals. It’s all of us together,” Thao said.
Of course, fundraising is an immense amount of work, and whatever space they can afford, they will also have to sustain. It’s sheer determination keeping this project going – simply because there’s too much at stake.
“I think it’s the drive – the drive for me is that it’s not going to happen unless we do it,” Vang said. “I just feel this urgency where if we don’t do this now, and we don’t continue to do this, it’s just going to be all gone. And then we really will have nothing to show for Hmong history.”