Turning the Pages of History: The Pathway for the First Asian Pacific American Museum and What It Means for Our Communities

Photo: Win McNamee via Getty Images

By Chrissy Park

Just a little over a week ago, history was made as communities and allies from around the country came together for the first-ever Asian American led rally, the Unity March. Together, we led a united voice to demand full rights and representation for Asian American and allied communities.

As our nation witnesses recent attacks on our rights and violence against our communities, we know our fight is far from over. So many people are speaking out to tell their story of unity, pan-racial power, and resilience to call for change. It is equally important to ensure that these moments of solidarity and activism are captured so that future generations can learn about them in our history books and museums.

For so long, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) did not have a physical space where our history, culture, and heritage are showcased and preserved. This may change soon. Last month, President Biden signed into law the Commission to Study the Potential Creation of a National Museum of Asian Pacific American History and Culture Act. The signing was an unprecedented step toward public recognition of AANHPI culture and history, as well as a reminder that our communities are integral to this country.

The bill, which was sponsored by Representative Grace Meng, passed the House in April and the Senate in May, both times with unanimous consent. The new commission will be comprised of eight individuals with expertise in museum planning or AANHPI history who will explore the possibility of creating, funding, and maintaining an Asian Pacific American museum in the nation’s capital.

Advancing Justice | AAJC commends the signing of this legislation, which comes at a critical moment in our country. The swift passage and signing indicates a growing number of Americans who are open to learning about legacies and systems of racism, in addition to their impact on communities of color — including Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. Establishing a national museum would help ensure that our communities’ stories are recognized as central to the larger American story.

“This an important step in recognizing the history and lived experiences of AAPI communities,” said John C. Yang, President and Executive Director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC. “Our communities have long faced exclusion — from history curricula in the classroom to the recognition that our communities are integral to the fabric of American society. Creating a national resource and institution dedicated to public education of Asian American, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islander histories is critical to building a more inclusive future.”

A national museum dedicated to the history and culture of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders would send a powerful message that our communities are a part of all aspects of America, and increasing visibility and educational awareness is an important step towards weaving AANHPI history into that of the nation. AANHPI history is often overlooked or taught incorrectly — if at all — but a national museum would begin the important unlearning that needs to be done to combat harmful myths and deepen understanding of AANHPI communities.

“AAPIs have been a part of America’s fabric and growth for generations, and this bill brings us one step closer to a physical museum where AAPI history, culture, and contributions to this nation would be displayed and preserved for future generations,” Representative Meng said.

Our communities have long struggled with the “perpetual foreigner” label, or the myth that they are not “real,” “true,” or “full” Americans. The lack of visibility of AANHPIs in the nation’s collective consciousness obscures their stories and history. This museum would allow for students, teachers, individuals, and families alike to learn about AANHPI communities’ contributions and challenges, which deserve attention at the national level.

Vice President Kamala Harris praised the potential creation of a national museum, describing it as an avenue to tell a “story about heroes who shaped our nation for the better” in addition to the darker sides of AANHPI history.

“This is also a story about some of our country’s darkest moments: the Chinese Exclusion Act, the internment of Japanese Americans, the murder of Vincent Chin, discrimination against South Asian Americans after 9/11, and today’s epidemic of hate, which is fueling violent acts against many communities including the AA and NHPI community,” Harris said. “Because, you see, this is also American history, and we must teach it as it really happened so that we can learn from our best moments and learn from our darkest moments, and in particular, then, to ensure they are never repeated, our darkest moments.”

A national museum would also create a national public resource for people both in and out of formal education systems. Although the inclusion of AANHPI and ethnic studies in K–12 education is of paramount importance, that excludes those who are not in the American education system or have already passed through it. Moreover, education after formal schooling tends to be privatized or underfunded. The museum, for which this bill establishes a commission and path forward, would be an important free and public resource for both those who are not in the AANHPI community and those who are.

Upon signing the bill into law, President Biden remarked:

“Today, it’s clear that the battle for the soul of America continues. That’s why a museum like this is going to matter so much. Museums of this magnitude and consequence are going to inspire and educate. More than anything else, it’s going to help people see themselves in the story of America — a story that makes us a better America.”

As we celebrate this historic moment as a critical first step, more work lies ahead. Advancing Justice | AAJC looks forward to next steps in helping to establish a national museum in our nation’s capital. We will continue to advocate for a more equitable society through the power of education so that future generations recognize the contributions of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and all Americans, as equally integral to American history and American society.

Chrissy Park is the Communications intern at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC works through our Education Advocacy program to promote educational equity for the nation’s diverse Asian American communities and to protect the civil and human rights of all students and families.

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Advancing Justice – AAJC

Advancing Justice – AAJC

Fighting for civil rights for all and working to empower #AsianAmericans to participate in our democracy.