Alumni / Summer 2017

Alumna Lisa Sasaki helms Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center

Lisa Sasaki is director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American Center. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian

As the new director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American Center (APAC), Lisa Sasaki expects to spend the next few years leading a team through dramatic change. One of the primary things she wants to shepherd is a change in prepositions.

For too long, the University of Denver alumna says, museums have directed their programming “at” an audience. She wants to fashion programming “with” a community.

Contrary to the objections of naysayers, that doesn’t mean replacing education priorities with fluff. “We don’t have to dumb things down,” Sasaki (MA ’00) explains. “But we have to meet people where they are.”

The people in question are all over the country; they’re online and in line at exhibition halls. And they’re curious about the history, culture and art that qualify as Asian Pacific American.

“We are a museum without a building,” Sasaki says, noting that APAC debuted 20 years ago “to help the Smithsonian tell more diverse stories.” To that end, APAC’s programming includes a series of pop-up Culture Labs that explore the insights of top thinkers and creatives. For example, a July 2017 event in Honolulu focused on convergence, because Hawaii is where land meets ocean and where vastly different cultures come together. Another lab, Ctrl+Alt, riffed off a famous computer keyboard command to focus on imagining futures.

Sasaki, as it happens, knows something about imagining futures—she found hers rummaging around in the past. “I have always been interested in history and archaeology—ever since I was in elementary school,” she recalls. After graduating from Colorado’s Wheat Ridge High School, she attended Cornell University, majoring in her two favorite subjects and fully intending to spend her career hopping between excavation sites, sifting soil for revelations and, she says, “discovering new worlds.”

Her aspirations collided with reality when, while still an undergraduate, she unearthed an epiphany in the trenches. “I went to field school in Greece,” she recalls, “and I spent a summer digging in about 110-degree weather and thought, maybe this isn’t for me.”

Back at Cornell, an advisor helped her uncover what she loved most about her fields of study: “It was working with artifacts,” she says. And most important, working with them in a climate-controlled setting.

So Sasaki began casting about for graduate opportunities, eventually landing on the museum studies program affiliated with DU’s Department of Anthropology. “What really attracted me to DU was the idea that they are preparing people to work at smaller [as well as larger] institutions,” she says. Where other programs urged specialization, DU’s curriculum allowed her to learn about everything from conserving artifacts to educating visitors.

While at DU, Sasaki worked at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science as a collections manager. She then moved to the Southeastern Colorado Heritage Center in Pueblo for a curatorial position, transitioning “from natural history to history.”

“The DU program really helped me to do that,” she recalls. The Pueblo job called on her to look beyond an individual department and consider not just the museum itself, but also the interests and needs of visitors.

That perspective paved the way for a nine-year stint as director of program development at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. A fourth-generation Japanese American, she reveled in the opportunity to explore her own heritage. Next, Sasaki took a job as director of the Audience and Civic Engagement Center at the Oakland Museum of California, where she assumed responsibility for marketing, public programs and visitor services.

As Sasaki sees it, these varied experiences prepared her for the Smithsonian position: engaging a national audience, developing programming for all sorts of venues, and, of course, raising money. Long-term, she’s fixed on yet another goal: “Fast forward 20 years,” she says, “our aspiration is for the center to have a presence on the [National] Mall.”

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