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Asian-Americans face a long fight to be included in America’s story

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Now the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community wants a spot. It might need to be patient – as the National Mall runs out of space, competition intensifies, Congress becomes increasingly dysfunctional and the community grapples with its own divisions.

Unlike others, the AAPI community is so diverse as to border on unwieldy. It represents 53 UN member countries, about 30 per cent of the Earth’s land mass and 50 distinct ethnic groups speaking upwards of 100 languages.
People enjoy the National Mall in Washington on January 26. The Mall and adjacent memorial parks are now home to a wide variety of museums, monuments, national galleries and memorial gardens. Photo: AFP
On the political spectrum, it ranges from relatively conservative Vietnamese to relatively liberal Filipinos while papering over the history of arrivals from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong identifying as Han Chinese, Tibetans, Wei and Uygur Muslims. Wealth and education spans those from Singapore, with an annual per capita income of around US$140,000, to Afghanistan, at less than US$400.
While diversity is central to America’s foundation story, jamming the entire AAPI experience into one building is a challenge. Should the stressed curator fashion 50 galleries to reflect this multiplicity? If not, who gets left out? Do they locate the Japanese near the Korean or Chinese galleries without evoking wartime legacies?
“Even if everyone gets a room, it will still be quite a fight,” says David Lei, a historian and former commissioner with San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum.
If the goal is to embolden and empower the community, there are already scores of US museums, heritage societies, wings of world-class art museum and niche collections, including the National Museum of Asian Art on the Mall.
If it is less about preaching to the choir and more about edifying mainstream Americans, a better strategy might be to lobby for a permanent exhibit in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History – which welcomes 2.1 million visitors annually – and working to build greater AAPI cohesion.

Chinese in the US: ‘we are part of the American narrative’

Then there are the logistics. David Uy, executive director of Washington’s Chinese-American Museum and member of a task force for an AAPI museum on the Mall, says he believes it could take 10 to 15 years. That might be optimistic.
The National Museum of African-American History and Culture was first proposed by black Civil War veterans in 1915. Bills were introduced to Congress in 1919, 1929, 1986 and 2003 before its 2012 groundbreaking and 2016 opening.

Women and Latinos are also ahead of AAPI people in the queue after decades of organising. Both received Congressional museum authorisation in 2020, saw potential Mall sites identified in 2022 and expect to wait at least a decade before their respective openings. Also in the running is the LGBTQ community, which received preliminary Congressional approval in 2022.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art in Washington DC attracts 525,000 visitors annually. Photo: Handout

The Latino effort underscores the challenges a diverse community may face. A preview exhibit was created within the American History Museum. Community disputes quickly erupted over its depiction of civil rights, Cuba, socialism and whether Latinos were victims of US oppression or proud Americans. Only some US$58 million of the US$800 million construction cost has been raised.

Neither are the Smithsonian’s museums strangers to historical controversy. In 1995, a planned atomic bomb exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum was cancelled after some veterans complained it was too sympathetic to the Japanese.

AAPI people passed an early hurdle in 2022 when lawmakers led by New York Democrat Grace Meng authorised a museum feasibility study. Still ahead are fundraising, reports, independent reviews, legislative strategies and a plan to operate it without federal funding.

Uy says that Asia is often a hard sell for Americans of European origin. The National Museum of Asian Art attracts 525,000 visitors annually, compared with 1 million visits for Native American museums in Washington and New York, 1.6 million for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and 4.4 million for the Natural History museum.

“What we need is a dinosaur we can put on display,” Uy says with a laugh. “It’s definitely a long game.”

Mark Magnier is the Post’s US deputy bureau chief

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