The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center is a “migratory museum” without a traditional public building. Now, the Center has launched an initiative to secure permanent gallery space on the National Mall. This follows the Smithsonian Latino Center announcing its forthcoming Molina Family Latino Gallery, slated to open in 2021.

We speak with the director of the Asian Pacific American Center to learn about the effort, her vision for the gallery and the significance of having Asian American history and culture documented on the National Mall.

Produced by Cydney Grannan


  • Lisa Sasaki Director, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center; @SmithsonianAPA


  • 12:00:02

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast how early does gender discrimination start. We'll talk about the gender gap when it comes to household chores both as kids and into adulthood. But first the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center calls itself a museum without walls, without a traditional gallery or building, its exhibits have been housed in various places. But now the center is looking to secure permanent gallery space on the National Mall. Joining me in studio is Lisa Sasaki. She is the Director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:00:40

    LISA SASAKIThank you so much for having me.

  • 12:00:41

    NNAMDIA lot of people may be surprised to learn there's not already a permanent gallery in the Smithsonian for Asian American history and culture, especially since there's an Asian Pacific American Center. So what does the center do?

  • 12:00:54

    SASAKISo the center has been around for about 20 years now. It was created as an initiative of the Smithsonian in order to help the institution tell diverse stories. So we've been working very closely with our sister units and museums across the Smithsonian to do temper exhibits and public programs. And about five years ago we started to do programs outside of Washington D.C., large scale pop-up programs and exhibitions around the country. And so that's what we've been doing for the last 20 years.

  • 12:01:29

    NNAMDIIt's essentially been a center in motion.

  • 12:01:31

    SASAKIExactly, and what we've really been trying to do is to think differently about what the museum experience can be. Like most people are so used to coming to visit a museum to see artifacts or art on a wall and because we don't currently have a physical space that sort of frees us up from having to, you know, fit within the boundaries of traditional museum practice. It allows us to work differently with artists and audiences and communities across the country.

  • 12:02:01

    NNAMDIWell, the Asian Pacific American Center was started, it's my understanding, in 1997. Why now in 2019 is it the right time to start looking -- to stop just moving around all the time to start looking at a permanent space?

  • 12:02:15

    SASAKIWell, as we were getting around the country, oftentimes communities would ask us, you know, why isn't there a physical presence in Washington D.C. There are so many opportunities here in D.C. as part of our nation's capital for people to see themselves represented many different types of Americans? And, you know, we started just to think about what would it mean to have a physical space here in D.C. where, you know, 364 days of the year visitors could come and learn about the very complex and diverse communities that makeup Asian Pacific America.

  • 12:02:51

    NNAMDIWhy the National Mall?

  • 12:02:53

    SASAKIBecause I think it's important for America to see all of the different types of Americans that our out there. Asian Pacific Americans have been here, you know, and contributing to the American story for over 200 years. Their struggles, their art, their histories, their families, their communities have been a part of the American story for such a long time. It seems really important to be able to tell that story on the National Mall, you know, on a continuing basis.

  • 12:03:28

    NNAMDIYou're looking to create a gallery space not a museum. What's the difference?

  • 12:03:34

    SASAKIWell, a museum would require -- I jokingly say literally an act of Congress in order to be created. It requires a commission. It requires legislation mandating a national museum. On the other hand, a gallery is possible to create within the existing Smithsonian. It allows us to be able to do a space that can demonstrate exactly what types of stories we could be telling. It allows us to have the flexibility of doing things a little bit differently and a little bit more nimbly than what a physical museum. It's also a lot less expensive than what it would cost to do that.

  • 12:04:17

    NNAMDIWe'll talk about that in a second. I know it's still early, but can you tell us anything about the vision for this gallery what parts of Asian Pacific American history will it share and how will it share it?

  • 12:04:28

    SASAKII think that the most important part of this gallery to understand is that we are going in understanding that Asian Pacific Americans are diverse and complex. That oftentimes this is a community that has been reduced to stereotypes or being seen primarily as East Asian Americans. So Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, Chinese Americans, but many people don't realize that, you know, this is a community that's incredibly diverse. It has over 100 different languages spoken. It has communities that have come to the United States at various different times and have long and different histories that, you know, we shouldn't collapse down into a single narrative.

  • 12:05:14

    SASAKISo part of the vision for this gallery is really to show as many of these stories, as many of these narratives as possible. And that can only really happen if you have technology in order to be able to do that. And really different ways of thinking other than what can just fit into a gallery or into a box. So a lot of what we're working on right now is really exploring how technology -- whether that's digital story telling or a virtual reality or augmented reality can help us tell those stories better. And how we can really interact with community in order to be able to capture those stories and present them in a new and innovative way.

  • 12:05:58

    NNAMDII was about to ask that because right now the center does interact with communities all over the country. So the gallery will also I guess by demand -- by public demand have to focus on community interaction. And you intend to use that using technology to the extent that that's possible.

  • 12:06:18

    SASAKIExactly. In fact, right now we have an initiative that has been launched in the Pacific. This is an area that I think sometimes doesn't get as much attention. But fascinating stories that are there and we have what we call a digital story telling initiative where we are going and having the community record their own stories. Students working with storytellers, working with technology in order to be able to tell their own stories using podcasting equipment, drones, you know, digital technology as much as we can provide. You know, and sort of skipping over that middle step of having a curator or having a filmmaker come in and mediate that story.

  • 12:07:02

    SASAKISo that's the wonderful thing about technology and where we are today is that, you know, now with a cell phone or with a podcasting microphone anybody can tell their stories. So what we're hoping to do is be able to record those, help those get recorded, and then bring them here to Washington D.C.

  • 12:07:20

    NNAMDIWhat do you think this gallery will mean for local Washingtonians?

  • 12:07:24

    SASAKII think it's an opportunity for them to be able to do a deep dive into Asian Pacific America. I think many times as we know those of us, who live here in D.C. that if you're here as a tourist there's so many things that you can see. So many parts of the Smithsonian that could take up days or hours of your time here, which means you're really only skating through the surface. I think if you're here in D.C. you'll have the opportunity to really dive into all of the content that's going to be available to you.

  • 12:08:00

    NNAMDIEarlier this month, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center hosted a gala in Los Angeles to kick off its fundraising efforts. What was the response? What kind of feedback did you receive, and why L.A.?

  • 12:08:12

    SASAKIWe had a fabulous response. We had so many people who came out to support us. You know, regular community members, members of Congress, artists, celebrities. All who were so excited to be able to support this particular project and what we were trying to do. Why Los Angeles is because we felt that it was important to kick this off in a place where there was a large Asian Pacific American community. And Los Angeles County has one of the largest. And so we wanted to be able to go to a different part of the country to be able to celebrate this moment and to be able to kick this initiative off.

  • 12:08:53

    NNAMDIWell, I know in the wake of the success of Crazy Rich Asians, Hollywood is also the place to be around this time.

  • 12:08:59

    SASAKIYes it is.

  • 12:09:01

    NNAMDIThere's private money raised at galas, but is there also the possibility of government funding for this gallery?

  • 12:09:08

    SASAKIWe definitely hope so. This is something that, you know, we're hoping to work with our representatives in Congress to be able to work on that. It of course would always be welcomed, but we know that this is going to be an effort that's going to require everybody's support. So not just federal dollars, but support from across the country if we want to be able to have this dream become a reality.

  • 12:09:34

    NNAMDIWhat's the timeframe you're looking at?

  • 12:09:36

    SASAKIRight now we're, you know, just launching the initiative. What I usually like to tell people or warn them about is that any type of gallery or exhibition takes a lot of time to be able to develop. Your typical exhibition will take anywhere between three to five years. You know, sort of from development, research, content development, production to the opening. So we're on a very similar, you know, sort of timeframe where we're looking at probably a five to seven year horizon.

  • 12:10:07

    NNAMDICan you talk about how much money you're trying to raise for this gallery or is that a secret at this point?

  • 12:10:13

    SASAKINo, it's actually something that we announce to everybody. We are doing this as part of what we're calling the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Keystone Initiative. So within this initiative, which the first phase, we're hoping to raise $25 million. The gallery is part of that, but what I also like to tell people is that we want to be sure that only does the gallery need to created, but it also needs to be maintained and supported into the future, and in order for that to happen you have to have maybe a little bit less exciting things, but really important things, like collections being collected, we need professionals like curators and staff to be hired to be able to do this type of work.

  • 12:10:58

    SASAKIWe want to be able to ensure that the next generation of museum professionals, through internships, are supported. We also want to be sure that we can continue to do the national work that we are doing right now by doing programs across the country even as we develop this gallery. So all of that is wrapped up into the Keystone Initiative, and why the $25 million mark is just the first goal and we'll have other goals as we hopefully meet and then exceed that first.

  • 12:11:27

    NNAMDIBut even as you're pursuing this initiative you're also the interim director of another Smithsonian community project and that is the Anacostia Museum. How are you balancing these two roles?

  • 12:11:40

    SASAKIWell, it has been a challenge. I wouldn't necessarily advise anybody to do that. But it has -- it's been my great honor to be able to work with the Anacostia Community Museum. You know, this is a museum that was the very first community based museum in the country that the Smithsonian started over 50 years ago. And for me it's a chance to continue to work with a community to be able to tell their stories and to be able to look at how together communities can make change.

  • 12:12:14

    NNAMDIGot a note from Lisa who writes, "Not that I don't think there isn't a compelling reason to have the gallery on the Mall, but what about all of the other American groups. Does this set a precedent to include all others? And how can we accommodate all of these groups in the limited space on the Mall?"

  • 12:12:31

    SASAKII think that that's a really really good question. And this is a conversation that has been happening for a very long time. I think even prior to the opening of the National Museum of African American history and culture. You know, there's been a discussion about, you know, are we sort of breaking up the story by having these various museums and gallery spaces.

  • 12:12:54

    SASAKIAnd there's not a general consensus even within the Asian Pacific American community about what the proper way is to be able to tell its stories. Should it be included, you know, within the parameters of the larger story or should there be separate spaces? What I can say is that there are definitely stories to be told within Asian Pacific America. You know, that next America, within all of these different places. And what we just want to ensure is that for this gallery there is the opportunity for those stories to be told.

  • 12:13:28

    NNAMDIHere's Stephen in Washington D.C. Stephan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:13:33

    STEPHANWell, thank you very much. I was just wondering whether your guest feels that the current Smithsonian, Sackler, Freer museums that specialize in Asian art would be a viable place for your gallery.

  • 12:13:55

    NNAMDIIndeed, we had a call from Mason, who couldn't stay on the line who said, is this effort being coordinated through the Sackler Museum. If not, why not?

  • 12:14:01

    SASAKISo the Freer, Sackler galleries really do focus more so on sort of the Asian Art aspect of things. We have partnered with them on several occasions. We continue to partner with them on several occasions. And I think that what we want to be able to do is look at multiple different opportunities within the Smithsonian about various different locations that might make sense, various different partnerships. For example, the Smithsonian Latino Center right now is working to develop the Molina Family Latino Gallery at the National Museum of American History. So that's something that's going to be opening in 2021.

  • 12:14:43

    SASAKISo there's a lot of work for us to be able to do. A site has not been identified yet within the Smithsonian as to where this gallery -- the Asian Pacific American gallery would be located. We're still under discussions with that. And I think it's a great opportunity for me to continue to have really good conversations with my fellow directors.

  • 12:15:03

    NNAMDIIn other Smithsonian news, it was announced yesterday that the head of the National Museum on African American history and culture, Lonnie Bunch, will be the next secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. How did you respond when you heard that news?

  • 12:15:18

    SASAKII was elated. I think that this is so amazing for me. I've been working in the museum field for over 20 years. And when I started my career there wasn't many professionals of color working within the museum field and very seldom did you look around and see, you know, people especially in leadership, who were leading major institutions or organizations. It's a moment that I can't even describe to know that the Smithsonian is going to be led by Lonnie, somebody who I've admired throughout his entire career and I'm so excited to be within the institution under his leadership.

  • 12:16:04

    NNAMDIThat excitement seems to widely shared. Lisa Sasaki is the Director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:16:13

    SASAKIWell, thank you so much for having me.

  • 12:16:14

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, how does early -- how early does gender discrimination start? We'll talk about the gender gap when it comes to household chores both as kids and into adulthood. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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