B.C. Kowalski/City Pages
Jim Harris, right, and Kee Herr, setting up items for a Hmong History Museum slated to open in the Wausau Center mall.
Jim Harris and his volunteer, Kee Herr, looked over a rice hulling system, its weathered old logs both simple and effective. They discussed displaying the item, how it would be placed, where it would go.
Harris spoke to one of Herr’s daughters, a young girl in junior high. “Do you know what your mom would have had you do if you were in Laos?” he asks. She puts down her phone and looks at him wide-eyed, shaking her head no. He explains that she would have been tasked with jumping up and down on the wooden platform, crushing the rice to separate the kernels from the husk. If she were too light, she would have enlisted a friend’s help, or a parent would have loaded a bag of rocks on her back.
These are the kinds stories Harris wants to share with the public when he opens the exhibit From Laos to America: The Spirit of 76 in the Wausau Center mall. The museum is slated to open before the Nov. 5 Hmong New Year, near the former J.C. Penney space.
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The museum will house a collection of artifacts Harris gathered from 18 trips to Laos. A retired administrator from the D.C. Everest school district, Harris for years has taken part in an effort to remove mines and bombs left from the Vietnam War. He also brought supplies for the people who live there, and came back with a wide range of artifacts, many quite old. He has bowls, utensils, and even a ball used in a traditional Hmong game. These all sat in a barn for years, and he believes it’s the largest private collection of Hmong artifacts in the country.
He hopes that his artifacts, often paired with their modern versions, could spark memories in Hmong elders who will explain them to their children and grandchildren. For those who are not Hmong, the exhibit is a window into the culture.
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Harris says he and many others have been disheartened by increasing racial tension since the adult homicide conviction of teenager Dylan Yang and related controversy surrounding the county’s administrator. This museum, Harris says, is a way to help connect the community. “All of that just wore my wife and me down,” Harris says. “We said, ‘What could we do about that?’ We decided to open a Hmong museum and honor the refuge experience.”
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