Oct 18, 2012

Hmong: Exhibition To Showcase Rich Cultural Heritage

Neville Public Museum in Wisconsin unveiled the “Who are the Hmong?” exhibit as part of an effort to engage more effectively with other community groups.

Below is an article published by Fourth Estate Newspaper:

Green Bay’s Neville Public Museum premiered its exhibit “Who are the Hmong?” Sept. 29. The exhibit showcased many aspects of the Hmong ethnic group, whose roots can be traced back to Eastern and Southeastern Asia.

Rolf Johnson, museum director, said the museum has never done anything on this scale that highlighted the Hmong culture, as well as the story about the Hmong and why they are here.

“There are other museums in the country that have done modest exhibits or programs about the   Hmong,” Johnson said, “but from what we’ve heard, this really is the richest museum exhibit that’s ever been created about their story.”

Johnson said the Neville has done similar exhibits showcasing important ethnic groups of Wisconsin, such as various European or First Nations people. What sets this one apart from the rest is how they approached the exhibit.

“We’ve done this sort of thing before, but never with the Hmong and never in this sort of way, where we talk about this broader story of why they’re here in our community now,” Johnson said.

Johnson said part of the reason for this exhibit was to reach out to other community groups and engage them more effectively. The focus for this exhibit was put on the Hmong because their population in Brown County alone reaches more than 8,000.

“It just seemed to make sense,” Johnson said. “This was a story that’s not only important to tell, but this is a good time to tell it.”

There were many facets to this exhibit. Johnson said they split the exhibit into four chapters to attempt to cover every aspect of the Hmong people and their culture.

The first deals with the ancient history of the Hmong. Johnson said there are records of Hmong history that go back more than 5,000 years.

Staryoung Thao, executive director of the United Hmong Asian Community Center, said the Hmong have roots in China, but then started to move into Southeastern Asian countries such as Laos, Vietnam and Thailand as time progressed.

Thao said the two main languages of the Hmong people are White Hmong and Green Hmong, with White Hmong being more common.

“As you read through a textbook or documents, most are printed in the White Hmong language,” Thao said.

The second chapter explores the Hmong people through the Vietnam War. In this conflict, the Hmong became allies of the U.S.

The next chapter follows the Vietnam War after U.S. troops left. Vietnamese Hmong were persecuted by the communist government in Vietnam and many had to flee refugee camps throughout Southeast Asia, Johnson said.

Thao said many Hmong emigrated to the U.S., primarily to California during the mid-to-late 1970s.

The final chapter of the exhibit showcases the Hmong in the present-day U.S.

According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin has the third highest Hmong population in the U.S., behind Minnesota and California.

Thao said the reason Wisconsin ranks so high in Hmong population could be attributed to the sponsorship programs.

One of the ways the Hmong are able to emigrate to the U.S. is through a sponsor. Many of these sponsors are churches and Hmong families who have already been sponsored. Because of this, those Hmong families can sponsor their relatives.

Despite their significant population in Wisconsin, not much is known about the Hmong and their culture by outside people.

Moua Por Xiong, junior history major at UW-Green Bay, said one reason for this is because the Hmong are community-based.

“From what I’ve seen, we usually like getting involved within the community and not getting outside of it,” Xiong said.

Thao said another reason could be non-Hmong find it hard to distinguish the Hmong people from various Asian ethnicities. Thao compared this with distinguishing the difference between the various European ethnicities.

“If I see someone, I should know if they’re Hmong, Chinese, Japanese or Korean,” Thao said, “but if you ask me if I can tell a white person from a French or Russian, I probably can’t.”

Johnson hopes this exhibit will expose museum visitors to the Hmong culture and lead to greater dialogue and understanding between community groups.

Xiong said he would recommend this exhibit to an outsider of Hmong culture.

“I’m hoping this exhibit will spark some kind of interest in the Hmong community,” Xiong said. “And if it does, I’m willing to help whoever’s interested.”

The Neville will have “Who are the Hmong?” on display until May 5.