Kudos Affiliates!! December 2023

Kudos to these Affiliates on their recent accomplishments! Do you have kudos to share? Please send potential entries to Aaron Glavas, GlavasC@si.edu. 


High Desert Museum (Bend, OR) is one of 28 Oregon arts organizations receiving a $10,000 grant through the Oregon Arts Commission Arts Learning Program to strengthen arts education for K-12 students. The grant will support Kids Curate, a yearlong, bilingual education program that provides more than 50 hours of engaging and sequential arts learning experiences to 50 underserved students at Bear Creek Elementary School in Bend.

Michigan State University Museum (East Lansing, MI) is the benefactor of a $2 million gift from the Forest Akers Trust. The investment will be used to construct and equip two spaces within the museum— an Immersive Lab and an Exhibit Lab. These new labs will empower university students to take a hands-on approach to exhibition creation and visitor engagement with the museum’s extensive collection of more than 1 million objects.

University of Nebraska State Museum (Lincoln, NE) received a $2 million gift from the Hubbard Family Foundation to establish the inaugural Dr. Michael and Jane Voorhies Endowed Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology position. Dr. Voorhies is a professor emeritus in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and curator emeritus at the state museum. The gift honors the Voorhies’ work discovering, researching, and helping establish the Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park. Ashley Poust, a paleontologist and a postdoctoral researcher at the San Diego Natural History Museum, has been named the inaugural curator.

The Fishers City Council approved a resolution granting Conner Prairie (Fishers, IN) $80,000 to serve the Fishers community, following a recommendation from the Fishers Nonprofit Committee.

Through its new Geosciences Open Science Ecosystem program, the National Science Foundation is funding 12 new projects to support sustainable and networked open science activities including Project Pythia and Pangeo: Building an Inclusive Geoscience Community Through Accessible, Reusable, and Reproducible Workflows. Led by the University at Albany, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (Boulder, CO), and Code for Science and Society/2i2c, this project will advance the development and use of Pythia Cookbooks, which are web-based interactive computing platforms embedded in open, cloud-based computational environments for executing common geoscience workflows.

The National Endowment for the Humanities announced $41.3 million in grants to support vital humanities education, research, preservation, and public programs featuring these Affiliate projects: 

  • Anchorage Museum (Anchorage, AK) ($100,000) to conduct comprehensive energy and carbon audits and cover consultant costs associated with development of a climate smart sustainability plan for the museum. 
  • Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles, CA) ($190,000) to develop two five-day workshops for 72 secondary school teachers on Japanese American history and community history through Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo neighborhood. 
  • Plimoth Patuxet Museums (Plymouth, MA) ($3,642) to purchase a digital, automatic monitoring system to record consecutive temperatures and relative humidity. 
  • Michigan State University Museum (East Lansing, MI)  
    • ($10,000) to purchase storage furniture to house portions of the Apparel, Textiles and Design teaching collection in museum-quality cabinetry. 
    • ($9,983) to improve the storage of 6,500 excavated and cataloged objects by replacing shelving and implementing radio frequency identification tagging technology for the digital tracking and retrieval of the collection. 
  • Dennos Museum Center (Traverse City, MI) ($10,000) to install 1,400 square feet of window tint film to reduce visible light levels in the museum’s promenade wing, a gallery space for light-sensitive objects such as photographs, works on paper, and organic materials. 
  • Mississippi Department of Archives and History (Jackson, MS) ($187,059) to create two, one-week Freedom Summer: 60 Years Later workshops for 72 K-12 educators on using a site-based approach to studying the civil rights movement in Mississippi. 
  • Center for Jewish History (New York, NY) ($350,000) to reconstruct the Center for Jewish History’s collection storage building to improve preservation of irreplaceable collections and reduce energy costs and carbon emissions. 
  • City Lore, Inc. (New York, NY) ($175,000) to develop a two-week Understanding Puerto Rican Migration and Community Building through the Arts and Humanities residential institute for 30 K-12 educators on the migration experience of New York City’s Puerto Rican communities expressed through the arts. 
  • Ohio History Connection (Columbus, OH) ($319,511) to digitize 100,000 pages of Ohio newspapers published prior to 1963, as part of the state’s sixth round of participation in the National Digital Newspaper Program. This phase would focus on three themes: community building, democracy, and transportation. 



Barco presented their fourth annual Blooloop 50 Museum Influencer List for 2023.The list highlights 50 key individuals whose innovation and creativity have been integral to developing today’s museums including:

The Southeast Museums Conference awarded the Greensboro History Museum (Greensboro, NC) two Gold Awards and one Silver Award for excellence in the use of technology. The competition encourages innovation, effective design, accessibility, creativity and pride of work, as well as recognition of institutional identity. The Gears of Democracy introductory video won Gold Awards for both its production and multi-screen installation in the NC Democracy: Eleven Elections exhibition. The stereoscopic video produced for the museum’s Gerrymander Madness received a Silver Award. NC Democracy: Eleven Elections has also been recognized with a 2023 Award of Excellence from the American Association of State & Local History. The exhibition explores choices and change across 11 state elections between 1776 and 2010, illustrating the twists and turns of who could participate, how voters cast their ballots, and what influenced decisions that continue to shape what democracy means today.

Kristan Uhlenbrock, director of The Institute for Science & Policy, a project of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (Denver, CO), was named one of the recipients of the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Awards for Excellence in Science Communications. The award presented by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in partnership with Schmidt Futures recognized Uhlenbrock’s podcast series using interviews to explore the complex mix of climate change, science, politics, policy, economics, culture, and humanity to tackle one of the biggest problems facing the Western U.S.– water scarcity. In addition, the Institute earned a $100,000 grant from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) to explore creating a science policy fellowship program that would give state legislators direct access to doctoral-level scientific experts. The grant is part of the NCSL’s State Science Policy Fellowship Planning Grant Initiative and could help legislators make choices about issues like energy, air pollution, climate, water, public health, and technology.

The American Alliance of Museums announced Samuel W. Black, Director of the African American Program, Senator John Heinz History Center (Pittsburgh, PA) and Marise McDermott, President and CEO, Witte Museum (San Antonio, TX) have been named members of its Excellence in DEAI Steering Committee.


Misha Galperin, Ph.D., president & chief executive officer, Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History (Philadelphia, PA), announced she will be stepping down from her role at the museum. Misha will stay on and work with the Board to onboard a successor and effect a smooth transition. 

Kudos Affiliates!! November 2023

Kudos to these Affiliates on their recent accomplishments! Do you have kudos to share? Please send potential entries to Aaron Glavas, GlavasC@si.edu.


The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded $76.4 million for the inaugural Global Centers Competition including University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Urbana-Champaign, IL) and partner institutions: University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (Boulder, CO) and Arizona State University. These collaborative research centers will apply best practices of broadening participation and community engagement to develop use-inspired research on climate change and clean energy. The centers will also create and promote opportunities for students and early-career researchers to gain education and training in world-class research while enhancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. Researchers will be supported by NSF up to $5 million over four to five years.

The Glen and Polly Barton Educational Endowment Fund donated $1 million to the Peoria Riverfront Museum (Peoria, IL) for the museum’s Every Student Initiative. The program brings Peoria Public School students to the museum to expand on topics outside of their classrooms.

Science Museum Oklahoma (Oklahoma City, OK) received a $1.5 million gift from the Chickasaw Nation to support a state-of-the art planetarium scheduled to open in 2024. The multimillion-dollar Love’s Planetarium will provide Oklahoma with an educational venue that will include an optical projector with a digital system that produces 9,500 bright stars and 56 nebulae and clusters for viewing as well as approximately 8 million detailed stars to recreate the Milky Way, all with high-intensity LEDs and fiber-optics. When it’s complete, the planetarium will be the only one of its kind with this combination of projection systems in the Western Hemisphere.

The National Park Service (NPS), in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), announced $25.7 million in Save America’s Treasures grants from the Historic Preservation Fund to preserve nationally significant sites and collections. Preservation projects receiving a Save America’s Treasures grant from NPS include:

Collections projects receiving a Save America’s Treasures grant from IMLS include:

  • Plimoth Patuxet Museums (Plymouth, MA) ($163,680) to support Preserving Mayflower II: A Project to Ensure the Longevity of a National Icon
  • YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (New York, NY) ($224,007) for the preservation and access of unique historical documents and photographs of the Jewish Labor and Political Archives.
  • Buffalo Bill Center of the West (Cody, WY) ($750,000) to improve and remodel collections storage spaces at the center.

International Museum of Art & Science (McAllen, TX) received three grant awards from the Texas Commission on the Arts for the 2023-24 fiscal year in the following categories:

  • $3,500 – Arts Respond – Public Safety and Criminal Justice– to support Screen It: Youth Identity Through Art which brings at-risk teens and working artists together to learn about the process of screen printing, culminating in a public exhibition.
  • $11,000 – A two-year Arts Create award to advance the creative economy of Texas by investing in the operations of the museum.
  • $74,924 – Cultural District Project award to support Destination McAllen: Art, Culture, IMAS which will attract tourists with public art and high-quality artistic videos featuring McAllen’s Cultural District.

The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium (Dubuque, IA) received $8,000 in funding from the City of Dubuque’s Arts and Cultural Affairs grant program to support a special 20th-Anniversary exhibit at the museum.


UNESCO World Heritage Committee added Ohio’s Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks as the United States’ 25th addition to the World Heritage List. The Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, which includes five locations managed by the National Park Service and three managed by the Ohio History Connection (Columbus, OH), were built by Native Americans between 1,600 and 2,000 years ago.

The Dubuque County Historical Society, which operates the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium and the Mathias Ham Historic Site, has been awarded a Top Workplaces 2023 honor by Iowa Top Workplaces.

Jose Santamaria, former executive director of Tellus Science Museum (Cartersville, GA), was recognized with the Entwisle Award for Lifetime Service in Tourism by Only in Cartersville Bartow Tourism.

Mr. William D. “Bill” Welge, Archivist, Historian, and Author, and former Research Division Director of the Oklahoma Historical Society (Oklahoma City, OK) was inducted into the Oklahoma Historian’s Hall of Fame in March 2023.  His service spanned nearly 44 years beginning in 1977. The OHS archives were renamed the “William D. Welge Archival Collections,” in his honor.


Jose Santamaria announced he will be moving from his executive director position of the Tellus Science Museum to part-time director emeritus. Tellus’ director of development, Adam Wade assumed the executive director role, effective October 1.

Putnam Museum and Science Center (Davenport, IA) President/CEO Rachael Mullins will retire in June 2024. She plans to relocate to the Atlanta area to be closer to family and assist in caring for her mother. A search committee will conduct a professional search to place a new president/CEO by June 1, 2024.

Kudos Affiliates!! October 2023

Kudos to these Affiliates on their recent accomplishments! Do you have kudos to share? Please send potential entries to Aaron Glavas, GlavasC@si.edu.


Montana Historical Society (Helena, MT) Director Molly Kruckenberg announced that Montana native Norm Asbjornson has donated $10.4 million for the construction of the new Montana Heritage Center. The donation completes the historical society’s goal of raising $18.8 million for enhancements to the museum’s galleries.

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science (Denver, CO) announced it has been awarded the largest research grant in its history. The collaborative research grant from the National Science Foundation’s Frontier Research in Earth Sciences program totals nearly $3 million. The five-year project will be led by museum’s curator of vertebrate paleontology Dr. Tyler Lyson, to help researchers understand the evolution of many modern plants and animals, as well as provide insights into the biodiversity crisis currently facing the planet, as ancient extinctions can teach about the extinctions happening today.

The Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and its supporting organizations provided Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) $100,000 for the Arab American National Museum (Dearborn, MI) and its neighborhood touring program, which explores local communities and their contributions to the region.

Ohio History Connection (Columbus, OH) received a $98,753 grant from the National Park Service to fund the consultation and documentation projects, such as staff travel, consultation meetings and research to support the repatriation process as part of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.


The Board of Directors of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) announced the appointment of six new accreditation commissioners including Norman Burns, President and CEO, Conner Prairie (Fishers, IN).

Kristin Glomstad-Yoon, curator of historic collections for the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium (Dubuque, IA), is one of two recipients of this year’s the Iowa Museum Association Rising Star Award. The award recognizes people who have worked or volunteered in the Iowa museum field for 3-5 years and have helped their museum broaden its audience through engagement activities.


Rashida Phillips, executive director at the American Jazz Museum (Kansas City, MO) since 2020, is leaving her post to pursue other interests. The museum’s board of directors announced that ethnomusicologist Dina Bennett has been named the museum’s interim executive director, effective Aug. 19.

All Here: Accessibility and Diversity:Balancing Design, Content and Access in the Molina Family Latino Gallery

Many thanks to Eli Boldt, 2023 Smithsonian Leadership for Change intern, for this guest post. Boldt was one of several interns identifying and writing stories about underrepresented topics for Smithsonian Affiliations. This is one of two stories they completed this summer. 

A small, tactile display showing a scene from the Pueblo lands. One bronze, woman figurine is placing bread into a round, clay oven. Another is watching loaves of bread cool. To the bottom left is a button that prompts a user to push to smell bread.
One of the tactile displays in the exhibition which, when the silver button is pressed, releases an odor of bread baking. Photo by Eli Boldt.

The Molina Family Latino Gallery, which opened in June 2022, is a precursor to the National Museum of the American Latino. The museum, legislated by Congress in 2020, is still in development and currently has exhibition space at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The Molina Gallery is a taste of what the museum will be: it represents the many varied histories of the Latino experience in America and the way Latino culture and figures have impacted and shaped the United States.

The exhibition was developed using a design model called I.P.O.P., a framework for building a content strategy focusing on Ideas, People, Objects, and Physical experiences. This allows the content to be diversified across the exhibition. Some people connect more with objects, while others connect with pictures and stories of people. Some people benefit heavily from having physical experiences, which tactile objects help to do.

Making an exhibit accessible is a balancing of the many types of people who are coming into the space. To design with accessibility in mind means finding the sweet spot where information is available and accessible to the most amount of people.

Under the direction of Elizabeth Ziebarth, Access Smithsonian helped bring the gallery’s vision for inclusive design to fruition. Leading a small but mighty team—Ziebarth is both director of Access Smithsonian and head diversity officer at the Smithsonian—the staff strives “for consistent and integrated inclusive design that provides meaningful access” in all their work. Ziebarth identifies making a space accessible to the blind as the most challenging.

“My rule of thumb is that if I can make something accessible to people who are blind or have low vision, I could probably make everything else accessible. The most challenging part of the design is to take something that is visual and make it into something that can deliver the content and the experience to somebody who can’t see it,” Ziebarth said.

A black and white QR code that can be scanned for visual descriptions.
One of the QR codes that can be scanned for visual descriptions. Photo by Eli Boldt.

Ways the gallery took on the challenge was creating a shoreline, a perimeter of cases around the middle. People who use canes can tap their way through and follow the path. There are cues and raised tabs on the ground to identify where QR codes, which pull up audio narration, are located. The gallery makes use of tactiles to tell the story as well. Tactiles are objects that are meant to be touched and interacted with. The museum shows a clay figurine and invites visitors to touch. There is a button that releases the smell of bread, another that plays the sounds of Domino Park, Miami, and releases the smell of coffee. There are audio descriptions and closed captions on video content for deaf and hard-of-hearing visitors, and space for wheelchair users to have as much mobility as possible.

The accessibility of the gallery is not unique, but it also is not the standard. It was made possible because accessibility was a part of the conversation from the start. Access Smithsonian was able to make a substantial impact on the exhibit’s layout, design, and technology because the designers and curators asked questions about accessibility all throughout.

“There’s no way that we can be everywhere, and we rely on developing relationships, trust, and a great understanding with teams,” said Ashley Grady, senior program specialist at Access Smithsonian. “They hopefully have the knowledge to make a lot of decisions independently, but they know that we’re always here for that guidance and access to user/expert testing or the disability community.”

The gallery was designed by Museum Environments, an organization that designs and creates multicultural and sustainable exhibits. Mariano Desmarás, the creative director for Museum Environments, was eager to help make the gallery accessible. He noted that as a consultant and designer, he can make suggestions but to do what the gallery ended up accomplishing, the backing of the institution and its leaders is essential. Desmarás points to his own background of having undiagnosed ADHD as a child and his experience with dyslexia, as well as his father’s later-in-life vision impairment, as reasons why accessibility is so important to him.

“Everybody had some sort of connection that they could make to why it would be important to have an inclusively designed exhibition space. And so that made a difference,” Ziebarth said.

That lived experience of seeing the struggles of people with disabilities is often a motivator for making spaces accessible; it is why user/expert testing was vital to the creation of the gallery and its accessible features.

The Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD) is a non-profit organization doing work with inclusive design. Their user/experts are people who, through their own lived experiences, have expertise. IHCD and Access Smithsonian brought user/experts into the gallery as it was being built.

A clay tactile figure of a boy, worn down by touching.
Another tactile element which has been worn down by visitors touching it. Photo by Eli Boldt.

A typical user/expert testing session, as described by Grady, would begin with her meeting the exhibit team to understand what questions needed to be answered in that specific session. This ensured the right people were there to help. If they needed to test assistive listening devices, people who were Deaf or hard of hearing were prioritized.

“While those things can be intersectional, it’s important to make sure we’ve got the right people that would benefit the most from whatever the equipment is or element is,” Grady said.

The sessions were conversational. They engaged more with contextual inquiry to see how people engaged with the content. The sessions often included Access Smithsonian as well as people working on the exhibit’s content and design. This allowed for questions to be asked and answered as real people experienced the content.

The sessions lasted anywhere from 90 minutes to 2 hours, Grady explained, but they could look different depending on what was being tested and how many people were brought in. Sometimes only one or two components were being tested, whereas other times the sessions would be a comprehensive walkthrough of the gallery. Of course, user/expert testing was halted during the pandemic, but the team pivoted the testing to Zoom and continued their work.

A tactile display representing Domino Park in Little Havana, Miami. A game of dominos set up in the middle, with a coffee pot that emits the smell of coffee to the bottom left. In the back, between two small pillars is a photo from Domino Park.
A tactile display representing Domino Park in Little Havana, Miami. Photo by Eli Boldt.

Through user testing, things changed. Many were small changes, of course, but even small changes helped make every component as accessible as it could be. Color contrasts were changed, the heights of QR codes adjusted and font size perfected. When they got into the space, the design team mapped out the floorplan with blue tape according to ADA standards only to realize that the turn radius was not enough for motorized wheelchairs.

Michelle Cook, an inclusive design specialist with Access Smithsonian, stressed that the minimum standards are just that: the minimum.

“That’s one of the things that has been historically a challenge for those of us in the design field — and advocates for accessible or inclusive design — has been convincing people that it’s better to do more than the minimum because it serves a more diverse audience,” Cook said.

And diversity is what the Molina Family Latino Gallery is trying to communicate. To show that populations you might not think about are vital to the history of the United States. Latino history is American history: our cultures are intertwined. And within that diversity is the intersection of accessibility. They are two ideas that exist within each other.

“There’s this fear that inclusion focuses on a particular population and that it’s reductive,” Desmarás said. “I actually think that if it’s done right, inclusion is additive. That you’re saying that we’re all here.”

Source list:

  • https://latino.si.edu/
    The website for the National Museum of the American Latino, a project currently in production. At the end of 2020, Former President Trump signed a bill for its creation. What was formerly the Smithsonian Latino Center became the National Museum of the American Latino.
  • https://latino.si.edu/support/molina-family-latino-gallery
    The website for the Molina Family Latino Gallery. The gallery is the precursor to the National Museum of the American Latino.
  • https://americanhistory.si.edu/
    The website for the National Museum of American History, where the Molina Family Latino Gallery lives.
  • https://latino.si.edu/lead-donors-molina-family
    The five children of Dr. C. David Molina collectively donated $10 million for the creation of the gallery.
  • https://access.si.edu/
    The website for Access Smithsonian. This organization was created in 1991 and works with museums to create meaningful access for everyone.
  • https://museumenvironments.com/
    Museum Environments is an organization that creates exhibits on large and small scales. They specialize in multicultural and bilingual exhibitions. For ¡Presente! they won the 2023 Smithsonian Award for Excellence in Exhibitions.
  • https://www.humancentereddesign.org/
    The Institute for Human Centered Design is an education and design non-profit organization focused on universal, inclusive and accessible design. They were a part of creating the Molina Family Gallery, including but not limited to user/expert sessions.
  • https://www.humancentereddesign.org/user-expert-lab
    User/experts have personal experience with disabilities or limitations and can provide expertise and advice for design. They were heavily involved in the creation of the Molina Family Latino Gallery.
  • https://www.ada.gov/law-and-regs/design-standards/
    The website for the Americans with Disabilities Act and the design standards. As noted by Smithsonian employees through the experience of creating an accessible exhibition, ADA standards do not cover newer devices and are often insufficient. Described as the bare minimum. 

Asian American Adoption- Part 3: The Interviews

Many thanks to Clarissa Trent, 2023 Smithsonian Leadership for Change intern, for this guest post. Trent was one of several interns working with Smithsonian Affiliations to identify untold stories and develop ways to tell those stories. This 3-part series is based on personal experiences, research conducted while at the Smithsonian Institution, and conversations with staff at The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. For more resources on Asian Pacific American bias and stereotypes, and further resources from the Smithsonian, visit the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

It’s impossible to capture the long and complicated history of adoption in just a few blog posts. The previous posts (Cold War Babies to a Multi-Million Dollar Industry and From Operation Baby Lift to International Adoption Today) cover just a small fraction of international adoption history, but hopefully they set the stage for sharing the interviews I conducted during my internship. Each woman I spoke with has had a different experience with transracial adoption that shaped their identities. I’m grateful to my sorority sisters Dana, Mattison, and Laura, for sharing their experiences and being open about their adoption stories.

Dana, on proving her “Asian-ness”

Growing up Chinese, with a white mother and Chinese siblings, Dana’s family is not what most people picture as a typical American family. But for Dana, this is the only family she can remember. Born in the bustling city of Guangdong, China, Dana was one of the thousands of children sent abroad when their birth mother gave up parental rights. Dana spent less than a year of her life in the country of her birth.

Dana entered a family that had adopted a girl from a different part of China two years earlier. Three years after her own adoption, Dana’s mother expanded their family and welcomed a boy from another part of China. Most adoptive families have both a mother and father, but not so for Dana’s story. Her mother adopted three children in five years as a single woman in her forties.

Dana’s mother enrolled her children in Chinese schools to incorporate as much Cantonese and Mandarin language and culture as possible in their lives. Dana was able to attend the school in her hometown that had an Asian population of 30%-40%. Dana remembers enjoying the experience, though her time at the school was short-lived. Unfortunately, when Dana was very young, her mother passed away and Dana and her siblings moved in with their maternal aunt.
Dana attended Clemson University, a predominately white institution in South Carolina where she continued to look for ways to embrace her culture. As a freshman, Dana joined Delta Phi Lambda, where her sorority sisters cultivated an environment that was inviting and safe to explore her Chinese background.

But there were challenges outside the safe space of the sorority. Not having grown up immersed in Chinese culture and tradition, as an adult Dana felt like an outsider compared to her peers raised by Asian parents. She felt the stark difference between Asian-raised and white-raised Asian children, and looking back, remembers not understanding or realizing she should be offended when children made fun of her for looking “Asian” or mocking a Chinese dialect.

One of the complexities of transracial adoption is this dual question of identity—on the one hand, being raised culturally white but experiencing racism and othering, and on the other hand, not having experienced the cultural language or traditions that would create a sense of belonging in the Asian community. As Dana expressed in her interview, “How are you going to invalidate my identity because we didn’t grow up the same?” Though the Asian diaspora is vast, with varied experiences, many adoptees feel they have to prove they are Asian.

Mattison, on “otherness”

In the capital of Hubei province, in Wuhan, China, a little girl named Mattison was born and put up for adoption, spending the first year of her life in an orphanage. Mattison’s mom traveled more than 15 hours to pick up her daughter from a hotel lobby. When telling her story, Mattison laughed when I asked about the location—most people imagine parents first meeting their child in a hospital or even an airport, but not in a hotel lobby.

Mattison grew up an only child in a predominately white community. She attended a private Catholic school with few other Asian students enrolled. Her mom tried to encourage her to connect with her Chinese heritage by taking language classes and wearing traditional Chinese apparel. Unfortunately, children bullied her, and eventually those lessons stopped. Those memories of being bullied still resonate with her today as she recalls how children made fun of her because of her clothes. These experiences impacted her personality, and she became shy and kept to herself. She knew she looked different compared to other people and it made her nervous. These feelings of wanting to belong continued into college.

Studying at Clemson University, Mattison first joined a Panhellenic, an historically white-only sorority, but quickly felt like an outsider and quit after one semester. She later learned about Delta Phi Lambda, which advocates for Asian awareness. The sorority welcomed her and she found a community in which she felt like never had to prove herself. And Mattison’s Chinese American boyfriend and his family were instrumental in helping her learn more about her culture, taking the time to teach her Cantonese along with Chinese traditions and recipes. But she still struggled with her identity—not looking like everyone else at Clemson was still hard. It affected friendships, romantic relationships, and how she viewed herself. Unlike many of her classmates and friends who grew up surrounded by those of their own race, Mattison could never take belonging for granted.

Mattison’s mother was also adopted, which helped them to share a special relationship. This commonality of being adopted is a connection that many adopted children do not share with their parents. However, unlike Mattison, her white mom was adopted into a white family. Still, her mom was always open with her about race and adoption and is the person Mattison often turned to for difficult conversations. While Mattison’s mom was very open to these conversations, her father was not. Mattison often felt she had to educate her father about race and racism, which is not uncommon within the adoptive community. For Mattison, the weight of this burden was often exhausting and disheartening. The burden of tackling racism and bias—already fraught topics—has added another complicated layer to the complexity of transracial adoption.

Laura, on being immersed in culture but still struggling to belong

A Chinese orphanage was Laura’s home until, at one year old, she made the 15-hour trip to Tennessee to begin her new life. Not long after her adoption, Laura’s parents adopted another child, a boy from Russia. Laura spoke of how her parents encouraged them each to explore their backgrounds and their cultures and never shied away from the topics of race and who they were.

Her parents made immersing Laura in the Asian community a priority. They would drive two hours to Nashville to celebrate Chinese New Year, and worked to keep Laura connected to two other girls that were adopted with her—friendships that are still important to her today. Laura has also had the privilege that many adoptees dream of, but rarely achieve—she was able to go back to her birth country to be immersed in Chinese culture.

Identity and belonging were still issues for Laura; not feeling Asian enough or feeling she did not have the right to speak on certain topics, she did not come to easy conclusions about herself. Laura faced racism that made her truly reflect on her identity. Despite having had so many opportunities to be immersed in Asian culture and community, she still keenly felt the internal battle of growing up looking Asian in a white culture.

Laura longed for acceptance in a community that is not always accepting. Always migrating towards people who look like her, Laura learned the hard way how, for some, adopted Asians are not perceived as “real” Asians. Twenty years later, through many struggles with identity and race, Laura finally feels proud to be an adoptee. With support from others and a growing inner strength, she is more confident in her identity and story.

Adoption stories are extremely personal, and difficult to share. Dana, Mattison, Laura, and I all have different adoption stories that shape our lives. Their stories are just three in a world of complicated stories and do not speak for all adoption experiences; they’re meant to foster conversations about identity, race, belonging, and inclusion. My hope is that these stories are a catalyst for bringing attention to transracial adoption. For many, myself included, our stories and experiences are not an open topic. For those curious about Asian transracial adoption, I have included some resources below to start—or continue–your journey. The experience of adoption is not singular, it takes time and research to understand how people feel about adoption and why it takes place. The complexities of transracial and international adoption are becoming an increasingly louder national conversation, one which will hopefully lead to increased understanding, awareness, and inclusion.

Readings and Resources

For a full list of sources, view here.

Asian American Adoption- Part 2: From Operation Baby Lift to International Adoption Today

A Vietnam exhibition display of two soldiers standing next to the helicopter and one in the cockpit.
A section of “The Price of Freedom” exhibition at the National Museum of American History. Photo by Clarissa Trent.

Many thanks to Clarissa Trent, 2023 Smithsonian Leadership for Change intern, for this guest post. Trent was one of several interns working with Smithsonian Affiliations to identify untold stories and develop ways to tell those stories. This 3-part series is based on personal experiences, research conducted while at the Smithsonian Institution, and conversations with staff at The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. For more resources on Asian Pacific American bias and stereotypes, and further resources from the Smithsonian, visit the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

After the Korean War, Asia faced other crises, including the Vietnam War, Cambodian Civil War, and the Laos Civil War. These wars left millions of men, women, and children dead. Countries fell into geopolitical tyrannical regimes and East and Southeast Asia transitioned to communist states. At the same time, international adoption was gaining traction in South Korea and growing popular in other Cold War countries. One infamous example of this popularity was Operation Baby Lift, which occurred after the Vietnam War.

Operation Baby Lift was authorized by President Gerald R. Ford and allowed for 30 planes to be filled with Vietnamese and Cambodian children. These infants and toddlers were airlifted out of the country to adoptive families in the United States, Canada, Australia, and more. The operation evacuated over 2,000 children from their home countries. While many applauded the United States government and military for their seemingly heroic rescue of these children, critics have characterized the event as “kidnapping,” describing the evacuation as a photo opportunity designed to pull public focus away from an extremely unpopular war.

During and following times of war, parents were often unable to find work and unable to provide for their children, and many turned to orphanages to care for them. Governments and adoption agencies, however, would misconstrue the facts and depict children as parentless even if one or both parents were still alive. Whether it fit the legal definition of kidnapping or not, the once-popular idea that international adoption saved children from the perceived threats of communism has become a central topic in modern conversation around adoption.

A newsletter clipping of the Disabled Child of the Month by Holt International.
A Holt Adoption Program Newsletter from September 1967 featuring a “Handicapped Child of the Month.” Photo by Clarissa Trent, courtesy of a National Museum of American History collections tour.

In recent years, adoption requirements have become stricter. Many countries have age, income, marriage, and health requirements. A number of countries have also agreed to the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. This sets an international standard for how international adoptions are conducted worldwide, to combat abduction and trafficking of children. However, not all countries are part of this agreement—most notably South Korea—and Americans continue to adopt from countries that are not part of the Hague Convention.

Asian adoptees who experience transracial adoption often have a complicated sense of identity. While adoptions do occur in families of the same race, the majority of Asian adoptions are to white families. The issues that Asian adoptees face are a part of a growing field of study looking at identity crisis, racism, mental health, emotional health, and abandonment. A study published in 2013 explored these issues in American adoptees. The results indicated that adoptees are four times more likely to die by suicide than biological children. These issues around plural identities and racism are not felt by all Asian adoptees, nor are they exclusive to Asian adoptees. While sometimes difficult, these conversations are essential to uncovering the stories of adoptees historically and today.

Readings and Resources:

For a full list of sources, view here.