Why It's Taking So Long To Build LA's Korean American History Museum
A first-of-its-kind museum devoted to Korean American history and culture was supposed to open to great fanfare in the heart of Los Angeles’ Koreatown last year.
Board members had raised millions to erect a gleaming white building nicknamed “The Mountain” on the busy corner of 6th and Vermont — a monument to the Korean American experience in the city where many immigrants first landed.
The Korean American National Museum was to be a neighborhood landmark and the newest link in a museum corridor that includes the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo and the Chinese American Museum in Chinatown.
But today, there is no museum in Koreatown, or any signs of construction, for that matter. The museum’s website asks visitors to check back for updates.
“Our timeline definitely got pushed back a lot,” said executive director Shinae Yoon. “We're kind of at the same place that we were in 2019.”
Crisis after crisis
What happened? The pandemic, for sure. Lockdown orders upended the permitting process with the city and killed in-person fundraising events just as the board was planning to take its capital campaign public.
But it wasn’t just COVID-19. In August 2021, the board suffered an emotional loss when one of its pivotal leaders, Dr. Myung Ki “Mike” Hong, died at age 87 from a health crisis that Yoon said was unrelated to the virus.
“He really was the driving force,” Yoon said of Hong, a chemist who started an industrial coating company and became a well-known philanthropist in the Korean American community.
Just months later, there was another blow. Mark Ridley-Thomas, who as the council member representing Koreatown was to be an integral partner on the museum project, was indicted on federal bribery charges in Oct. 2021.
Now the board is starting over with Ridley-Thomas’ replacement, Heather Hutt, whom the council appointed last fall to represent District 10 on an interim basis.
It’s a time of both uncertainty and optimism for a project intended to be the premier museum focused on the Korean diaspora in the U.S.
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The board — working with a team of architects at L.A.-based Morphosis, most of whom are of Korean descent — has to decide whether a pre-pandemic construction budget of $32 million still makes sense with rising wages, inflation and supply chain problems.
The budget that the board settles on will help decide when it takes fundraising into its public phase. So far, private donations — plus city, state and federal funds — have pushed the total raised to about $19 million, Yoon said.
Yoon said changes in the design are already being made to adjust to new financial realities. For example, an underground parking garage may have to be moved above ground because of the high cost of excavation. That could significantly change the museum’s look, which is inspired by a traditional Korean house, or hanok.
A decades-long journey
Pre-pandemic, it seemed like the museum project was nearing the home stretch after decades of planning.
The effort began in 1991, when a group of local Korean Americans founded a nonprofit to create a museum and get it a brick-and-mortar home. They struck a deal to lease city-owned land in Koreatown that included a provision that parking be built for the Department of Transportation, which is currently using the parcel as a surface lot.
The campaign to build a museum showed how the Korean American community was maturing, said Edward Chang, an ethnic studies professor at UC Riverside.
He said the waves of Koreans who arrived in the U.S. after immigration restrictions were lifted in the mid-1960s had been focused on making a living.
“In the 20th century, the community was in early childhood. But now we are in the middle age, and some people are beginning to think about what it means to be Korean American,” Chang said.
If you don't have a permanent place where we can preserve the history and the culture of our different communities, then it can be erased.
Chang, who founded and directs the Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies at UC Riverside, said the need for a museum has become glaringly obvious. The Korean American population in Southern California now stands at more than 300,000, with Koreatown serving as its social and commercial hub.
“Although Koreatown brags the largest concentration of Koreans overseas, we really don't have any community center to meet,” Chang said. “Most of the functions are held in either hotels, or church.”
Nowhere in Koreatown is there a place that can both showcase major exhibitions and cultural events outside of the Korean Cultural Center, which is operated by Korea’s tourism ministry.
There are small Korean American history museums in San Francisco and New York, but nothing on the scale of what is being attempted in Koreatown.
Chang said right now the closest comparison to the Koreatown project would be the Korean Cultural Center of Chicago in Wheeling, Illinois, which frequently hosts exhibitions and acts as a community meeting ground. Next year, the center will present a traveling exhibition that Chang organized on the first Korean American settlement that was established in Riverside.
New blood, new money
For the Koreatown museum project to succeed, Chang said there needs to be more buy-in from the community beyond a coterie of mostly older, wealthy backers.
“It’s cliquish, rather than opening up to all kinds of different groups so everyone feels they are invested,” Chang said.
To generate more support, the board has recruited new blood: former L.A. Councilmember David Ryu and Irina Kwon, who replaced her late mother Chong Ja Kwon on the board.
It is about time where 1.5, second and third-generation Korean Americans hopefully step up.
Ryu, who took over the seat held by his mentor Hong, said that historically it’s been older Korean Americans who have given back the most to their community.
“It is about time where 1.5, second and third-generation Korean Americans hopefully step up,” said Ryu, who came to the U.S. as a 6-year-old. “They have not done so as much and I think this is an opportunity for us to change that.”
Ryu said it was fortunate that the project hadn’t broken ground before the pandemic struck.
“While there's been major delays, sometimes it's a blessing in disguise,” Ryu said. “There are many projects, especially commercial projects, that have just gone belly up.”
Late last year, the board got news that $7 million in federal funds had been appropriated for the project.
U.S. Rep. Jimmy Gomez, who represents Koreatown, secured funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that the museum will be able to access at different phases — both before and after construction begins.
Gomez claims more constituents of Korean descent in his congressional district than any other. With fellow Congress member Judy Chu, Gomez in January reintroduced a resolution celebrating Korean American Day, marking the U.S. arrival of the first Korean immigrants in 1903.
Gomez said he wants to help Korean Americans "claim their space in the greater American story" and funding the museum is one way.
“If you don't have a permanent place where we can preserve the history and the culture of our different communities, then it can be erased,” Gomez said.
Yoon said the $7 million is not just a huge infusion of money, but also a morale booster as the museum project tries to regain momentum.
“How do we deal with adversities so that we can get to the finish line?” Yoon said.
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