Close-up view of a Hmnong story-cloth textile
Pa Lee Thao (Hmong American, born Laos), dates unknown, Panel (detail), c. 1985, cotton, embroidery appliqué, reverse appliqué. Gift of Lynn Swanson, 99.243.9

How a young conservator is helping preserve her Hmong heritage

By Olivia Thanadabout //

[Editor’s note: While “Hmong” remains the predominant spelling of the cultural group’s Anglicized name, “HMong” is increasingly used to be inclusive of both Hmoob Dawb (White Hmong) and Moob Leeg (Green/Blue Mong).]

April is National Hmong Heritage Month, and to mark the occasion Mia is displaying two Paj Ntaub, or Flower Cloth, tapestries in the lobby. These beautifully intricate, hand-embroidered textiles are characteristic of the form: one pictures various celebratory and daily life activities, the other features an elaborate geometric motif. Paj Ntaub are one of the most widely recognized ways that most people experience HMong storytelling, and when Pujan Gandhi—Mia’s Jane Emison Assistant Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art—invited me to collaborate on the selection of these artworks for display this month, I was thrilled. The more we can preserve and display HMong material culture, the better chance we have of preserving HMong history.

One of two Paj Ntaub, or flower cloth, textiles on view through May at Mia.

As a 24-year-old HMong person, I bridge the generation gap between those who were fully immersed in traditional HMong customs and those who use TikTok lingo in their everyday vocabulary. I teach my grandma how to use Facebook while simultaneously helping my 14-year-old brother pronounce new HMong words. I am the last grandchild in my family to speak HMong regularly (mostly with my grandmother), and even then I consider myself only eighty percent proficient. As the first HMong who arrived in the United States during the Vietnam War are beginning to pass away, there has never been a more urgent time to contribute to the preservation of Hmong culture. This is why I am pursuing a career in art conservation: I am a bridge between past and present.

In 2022, I graduated from Wesleyan University with a BA in Studio Art and Art History. Moving back home to the Twin Cities after graduation, I was in search of opportunities to gain more experience in art conservation before applying to graduate school. This led me to the Midwest Art Conservation Center (MACC), housed in the Mia building. Drawn to MACC’s dedication to equitable and community-led conservation, I applied to the year-long Mellon Fellowship in Collaborative Conservation in the Preventive Conservation department. One of the most important components of this fellowship is a research project. After learning about the challenges that smaller communities and museums face when caring for material culture—and some of the ways that MACC is helping combat these issues—I knew this research project was the perfect opportunity to make an impact on the HMong community.

A significant challenge in preserving HMong material culture is its root in a strictly oral language. It wasn’t until the 1950s that a written form of the HMong language was developed. Our traditional stories and rituals have been passed down through storytelling, song, dance, and textiles, such as the Paj Ntaub now on display at Mia. A gradual loss of the HMong language, due to children not interacting with elders as much as they once did, now threatens the preservation of this material culture.

I don’t think the issue is a lack of curiosity about our heritage, but rather a lack of confidence to ask the right questions. Speaking for myself, my lack of confidence is generally driven by my limited vocabulary for describing preservation issues and techniques, such as the effects of UV and other light on materials. As the cultural heritage preservation field becomes more widely known to different communities, I believe more words will be developed, and I hope to be a part of this progression. The rapid decline in language awareness and a growing need for documentation of HMong history in my community is the main motivator behind my research project at MACC.

My project focuses on interviewing various people who work with HMong material culture, gathering information about what is currently being done to preserve our history in order to help with future preservation efforts. After my initial interviews, I hope to write a series of technical leaflets that inform people on how to care for various items, such as silver necklaces and Paj Ntaub. Many significant HMong objects are not yet ready to be in museum or gallery spaces; they still hold important familial value or remain in use. My hope is that the knowledge I share will help people store items safely and prolong their history. For many cultures, museums aren’t always seen as ideal spaces for materials to be displayed, and for this reason it’s important to me that information is distributed directly to the community.

Children view a Hmong textile at Mia.

Visiting schoolchildren view the textiles in Mia’s lobby.

I was exploring the breadth of HMong materials in Mia’s collection when I was offered the opportunity to help select the Paj Ntaub for display. I was interested in pieces that would be easily identifiable as HMong—materially and stylistically—but also displayed a unique twist on traditional subject matter. As you enter the lobby, the intricate geometry of the first piece you see draws you in, its spirals entrancing with their precision and symmetry. It doesn’t fuss with bright colors; rather, the star of the show is the repetition of the “snail” spiral motif, meaning “family growth,” an important value in traditional HMong culture. I was also interested in the color choice, a potential reference to an earlier tradition of HMong batik arts on indigo hemp cloth.

The elaborately hand-embroidered Paj Ntaub on the opposite side was selected because Pujan and I thought it was perfect for spring. Unlike other story cloths that might feature hand-stitched captions and certain figures, here you don’t need to be familiar with HMong traditions to see in these colors and bucolic scenes a wish for agricultural bounty and the uniting of family, religion, and social life. HMong people are natural storytellers, generally excited to share our culture with anyone who is willing to respectfully learn, and that’s what this piece feels like to me—it’s hard not to point out to my friends everything I recognize in this work. It simply celebrates the vibrancy of HMong culture.

The Paj Ntaub at Mia serve as a beautiful statement that Minnesota has an abundant and thriving HMong community. While our culture may be new to the art of the written word, it has a deeply rooted history in textile arts, oral history, metalwork, and much more. With advancing technology and science, it’s an exciting time to be a part of preserving the beautifully elaborate history of the HMong people.

The HMong textiles will remain on view in Mia’s lobby through May. Learn more about HMong art and history at the Hmong Museum in St. Paul and the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University.