The 10 Best Museums to Learn About Asian American and Pacific Islander History and Culture
August 26, 2022
With the recent spike in anti-Asian hate crimes across the United States, there has never been a more important time to make the Asian American and Pacific Islander community feel supported, safe, and seen.
There are many ways to do that. You can check in with your AAPI friends and neighbors. You can have conversations with them about their backgrounds and experiences. And you can visit museums and other cultural centers to gain knowledge about the unique heritages of AAPI communities.
But which museums? Out of the many institutions that showcase Asian and Pacific Island art, you want to focus on those that contextualize their holdings even as they celebrate specifc aspects of the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience. Here are the best U.S. museums that do just that.
Pictured above: the Seattle Asian Art Museum
MOCA in New York City is the USA's best museum for Chinese American history, period. Small but mighty, the permanent collection covers over 200 years of Chinese American history in an intimate and digestible way.
Among MOCA’s many prized artifacts are a 19th-century porcelain beer stein from the early days of China–U.S. trade and original documents from the passing of 1882's Chinese Exclusion Act, the first time the U.S. government legally forbade one particular nationality from settling in the country.
Persevering against adversity defines much of Chinese American history, and the museum itself has done the same. In early 2020, a fire destroyed the building that housed a vast quantity of MOCA’s archive—but by July 2021, the museum had unveiled a special temporary exhibit on the rising anti-Asian violence linked to the Covid-19 pandemic
On the other side of the country, the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles is another great option for learning about Chinese American history. Housed in the oldest surviving structure in L.A.'s original Chinatown, the museum focuses on the community's settlement in Southern California.
Also in New York City is the flagship museum of the Asia Society, a global nonprofit arts and educational organization that has centers in Hong Kong, Switzerland, and France as well. All of those host guest lectures, workshops, and language classes. But New York has the only museum, where the organization displays impressive contemporary Asian art, including works commissioned by the museum. Among the latter have been original pieces by Iranian sculptor Reza Aramesh and Indian painter Abir Karmakar, both of whom explore the legacy of colonization in their home countries.
There’s no permanent collection at the Asia Society and special exhibits change frequently, so make sure to check the online calendar to see what’s on.
This is the only pan-Asian Pacific American museum in the country, with representations from over 26 ethnic groups, all part of the AAPI diaspora. Some exhibits, such as one on Myanmar and another on Filipino Americans, home in on a single community. Other exhibits are themed and multicultural, such as "Where Beauty Lies," which explores the ebbs and flows of what defines beauty in different cultures.
The permanent exhibit, "Honoring Our Journey," is the heart of the museum, exploring the AAPI experience through themes of home, social justice, making a living, and more.
Located in Seattle’s Chinatown Historic District, the museum occupies a former boardinghouse built by Chinese immigrants in 1910. The museum pays homage to its history with displays such as a careful re-creation of the Yick Fung Co. import-export store (pictured above), an evocative taste of old Chinatown.
The Seattle Asian Art Museum, which is part of the Seattle Art Museum, is a perfect meeting point between historic Asian objects and contemporary Asian art. For a taste of history, visit the Porcelain Room, a visually magnificent display of ancient Chinese and Japanese porcelain. Then head over to "Boundless: Stories of Asian Art," which displays ancient and contemporary pieces side by side. Though the works don't always come from the same regions, they communicate with one another across the centuries in thematic harmony.
Another high point is "Be/longing," a grouping of works by 12 artists born in different parts of Asia. The metal sculpture pictured above, Do Ho Suh’s Some/One, anchors the other pieces, including Miwa Yanagi’s photograph of a red-haired grandma riding in a flying motorcycle sidecar across the Golden Gate Bridge.
Forty years ago, a group of Japanese American World War II veterans crafted an exhibit to preserve their stories. That project eventually grew into L.A.'s powerhouse Japanese American National Museum, now an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.
The museum offers a fluid, mind-opening, and high-tech history lesson. After encountering a comprehensive timeline of Japanese American history in the first gallery, visitors can have an AI-assisted conversation with WWII vet Lawson Iichiro Sakai and, later, use augmented reality to adopt the perspective of a photographer documenting the plight of Japanese Americans incarcerated by the U.S. government during World War II.
Plentiful contemporary art and Japanese pop-culture knickknacks provide lighter entertainment. Since you’re already in Little Tokyo, be sure to pair your museum visit with a hearty Japanese lunch.
This Pasadena facility manages to cover a lot of ground without being overwhelming. Curator Rebecca Hall says she aims to create a “personable” atmosphere and “to not make Asia seem like this faraway place.”
Designed to resemble a classic Chinese pagoda, the building has an arched entrance that is an exact copy of a Buddhist library in Beijing. Inside, the museum strives to represent the diverse AAPI population of the Los Angeles area. Among the recent acquisitions: a Japanese wedding kimono from 1935 and a terra-cotta bowl that comes from West Bengal, India, and was created in the 1st century BCE. Exhibitions increasingly embrace contemporary art, too, as in a show of Chinese American Sandra Low’s “Cheesy Paintings” of romantic landscapes dripping in American cheese.
The place is kid-friendly as well—the educational Silk Road exhibit has lots of interactive elements, such as spinning quiz cylinders to test visitors’ knowledge of camel husbandry.
Don’t be tricked by the Western-looking Beaux Arts–style building. This is the country's largest museum exclusively devoted to Asian art. Given the size of the collection—over 18,000 objects spanning 6,000 years of history—taking one of the free guided tours might be the best way to avoid getting overwhelmed. You'll see meticulously crafted Hindu deities, Korean ceramics, and golden thrones from Southeast Asian Buddhist temples, as well as wonders from more recent decades, such as the delicate hanging sculptures of Afruz Amigh.
Notably, the museum is also making an effort to champion the work of under-recognized AAPI figures (like 20th-century queer Asian American artist Bernice Bing) and celebrate beloved pop-culture faves such as Bollywood films and their roots in 2,000 years of dance in South and Southeast Asia.
On your way out, be sure to snap a pic of Jenifer K. Wofford's Pattern Recognition mural on Hyde Street.
There are over 20,000 Pacific Islands, but this gem is the only museum dedicated solely to those cultures in the continental United States. Director and curator Fran Lujan, a Pacific Islander of Chamorro ancestry, puts her mission this way: “I would like people, when they come into this space, to feel it as a sacred healing space.”
When you enter, Lujan or another staff member will greet you and talk you through how to best experience the collections. Written directions on the walls and floors invite visitors to lean into the sacred practices of Pacific Islanders, such as asking permission before entering the traditional house within the museum to acknowledge the ancestors of the work’s creator and the Indigenous people who lived on the land the museum occupies.
The museum is small but there are plenty of places to linger, such as the reliquary space, where you can sit on a mat and gaze at gorgeous paper gaosali flowers. Because many areas don't have extensive accompanying text, direct your questions to staff members or the artist in residence. They are part of the Pacific Islander community and are happy to engage with visitors.
Perhaps unexpectedly, this museum in Virginia's capital has one of the country's most impressive collections of South Asian and Himalayan art. Spectacular sculptures, paintings, textiles, and decorative pieces come from an array of eras, including the present. You can feast your eyes on everything from a magnificent 12th-century bronze Shiva surrounded by a circle of flames to contemporary creations such as Tibetan American artist Tsherin Sherpa’s reinterpretation of Andy Warhol’s Eight Elvises using figures inspired by Buddhism.
The collection centers on ancient works such as rare lacquerware artifacts and elaborate jade sculptures. On the contemporary side of things, a standout is the museum's series highlighting the work of Texas-based Asian women artists (such as JooYoung Choi, who explores the concept of resilience in identity in a whimsical sci-fi world). If you visit the Crow during lunch hours, you might catch locals coming for yoga and tai chi workshops in the galleries.