Listen: Science Museum of Minnesota Hmong exhibit

MPR’s Dale Connelly interviews Melissa Ringheim, a curator at the Science Museum of Minnesota, about exhibit of Hmong and Iu Mien embroidery, batik, and applique work. Ringheim describes the detail and style of the wearable art.


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SPEAKER 1: Here in Minnesota, we know the Laotian Hmong people as newcomers. Many have come here seeking refuge from persecution in their own country. The Hmong and the Iu Mien, other Laotian refugees, were allies of the United States during the war in Vietnam. And as I said, we know them as newcomers. But the Hmong and Iu Mien have a history that is quite rich.

Some of that richness is on display beginning today at the Science Museum of Minnesota. A new exhibit features the embroidery, batik, and applique work of these Laotian people. Some of the techniques have been in use for 5,000 years.

Melissa Ringheim is curator of the exhibit. She's with us now to explain what's so special about this work. And that's a good place to start. What is so special about it?

MELISSA RINGHEIM: It is literally the art off their backs. It's a wearable art. They embellished everyday clothing with incredible finesse and detail, all these groups, even though their techniques are quite distinct.

SPEAKER 1: Give me an idea of what thing we're talking about. Is there one particular piece, or a couple of pieces in the work, that stand out?

MELISSA RINGHEIM: The baby carriers are an interesting-- are interesting pieces in that each group has a very distinct style of doing those. And yet, they're all very important things. To all these people, their children are paramount.

And we have, for example, a Yao baby carrier that's really extraordinary, decorated with yarn pom poms and silver beads. They're actually now aluminum. But traditionally, they were silver and embroidered with the extraordinary skill that the Yao people are known for in Southeast Asia.

SPEAKER 1: What about some of the other work, the batik and appliqué?

MELISSA RINGHEIM: Well, I'll describe the process. The batik is a wax resist process in which wax is applied to undyed cloth. And then, it is dyed.

And after dying, the wax has resisted all the dye. And the wax is removed. And the white lines remain, which become the pattern.

The Blue Hmong practice a very unusual batik in that it is extremely controlled. It's all made up of straight lines. It's very fine. It's done without any patterns on yards and yards of cloth. They'll do six or eight yards to make a skirt.

SPEAKER 1: You mean they drip wax on the clothing.

MELISSA RINGHEIM: They have something that's like a stylus. And they just literally draw it on in thin lines.

SPEAKER 1: And this is all done freehand?


SPEAKER 1: Which makes it even more amazing.

MELISSA RINGHEIM: It is. And if you've ever done batik, control is really essential. And for some cultures, their batik is not necessarily so controlled.

The little blobs of wax are part of their tradition. But the Blue Hmong, it's very, very controlled. You never see any of these little places where they have stopped, or where any wax has come out in-- not in a thin line, for example.

SPEAKER 1: Doesn't seem that the Hmong people in the Twin Cities wear any traditional garb. In fact, it looks like they wear American polyester clothes for the most part. Whatever's available.

MELISSA RINGHEIM: That's true. Yeah. I think that-- to a certain extent, that is because they don't-- they have neither the materials nor the time to create some of these garments anymore.

And also, I think that they are trying to assimilate. And also, they have been told-- I had been told that in Thailand, they were told that when they came to this country, they were going to have to abandon their old ways because they were now going to become Americans. And as a matter of fact, one of the stories that's told in the exhibit, Jane Hamilton-Merritt, who had worked with the Hmong and Yao, was given a bag of collar pieces, which are very beautifully done part of the Hmong costume. They were just clipped off their garments and handed to her in a bag so that she would save them because they were afraid that they would lose all their traditional garb.

SPEAKER 1: Well, this must be a little confusing for the Hmong people then in the Twin Cities to suddenly find, as they're here trying to assimilate, that the science museum down the street is having a big exhibit on their traditional work.

MELISSA RINGHEIM: Actually, the response from the Hmong community has been just wonderful. They are so excited about this because I think that they feel, to a large extent, that Americans do not know who they were, or who they are, and what their rich traditions are. And they have suffered the problems of all refugees in the Twin Cities and in the United States.

But they have this rich cultural tradition. And I think they find it amusing to see these things behind Plexiglas and on the wall. But I think they enjoy very much that-- the fact that we find them so beautiful.

SPEAKER 1: Thank you very much for joining us. Melissa Ringheim is curator of a new exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota. It features the unusual textile work of the Laotian Hmong and Iu Mien people.

The works are on exhibit through the end of July. Costs $3 for adults and $2 for senior citizens and children under 12. Now members of the Hmong community in the Twin Cities, by the way, are able to get into the museum free.

And today is a special day when the Hmong in the Twin Cities are encouraged to attend. There will be some exhibits of Hmong culture, in addition to that. And the Hmong in our area are encouraged to show up in traditional dress.

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