Laogai Museum – A Dupont Detour

Photo courtesy of
‘Laogai Museum 4′
courtesy of ‘jcm_DC’

The Laogai Museum may be small, but it packs a punch. Tucked away in the old Real World DC house off Dupont Circle, its one-floor exhibit explores the dark underbelly of Chinese labor camps and human rights policies.

“Laogai” means “reform through labor” and refers to oppressive tactics the museum claims China has used to punish political prisoners since 1949. Harry Wu, a survivor of the Laogai camps, founded the museum in 2008 as part of the larger Laogai Research Foundation. The museum moved into its current location last April, where they now offer free admission and guided tours.

Being such a young museum, it still has room for improvement. The stark red and black winding hallways can be a little confusing. I had trouble knowing where to start on my visit and in what order to look at everything. The first half of the museum feels one-dimensional, and the amount of text on the walls overwhelmed me a bit.

But it’s such a small space that getting through the information doesn’t take very long. The second half has more interactive features, including a series of films that gave some faces to the stories I’d just read and, frankly, made them more believable. The museum also has a model of a solitary confinement cell and garments worn in the Laogai.

Photo courtesy of
‘Laogai Museum 2′
courtesy of ‘jcm_DC’

The most fascinating part of the exhibit for me was the section on products made by the Laogai prisoners. The list includes clothing, toys and even wine that allegedly come from forced labor by political prisoners. The Laogai Research Foundation starkly shows their biases in this part of the exhibit: while they want to raise awareness first, they also hope people will stop buying any products made in China (yes, that’s any) until the Laogai system ends.

The museum also includes educational space and a small bookstore with resources on human rights in China.

The foundation’s one-sided message may not suit everyone, and the space could improve with a few more creative features. Still, the Laogai Museum reflects that part of DC that always grapples with policy and makes you think. It would add new dimension to your tour around Dupont Circle and provide some great conversation fodder for a meal nearby.

Hours: M-F 10am-6pm and Sat 10am-5pm. Admission always free.
The Laogai Museum is located at 1734 20th Street NW. Nearest Metro: Dupont Circle (Red Line).

Joanna moved to DC in 2010 knowing she’d love it, and as usual she was right. She enjoys eating fried things, drinking scotch and smoking cigars, and makes up for the damage done by snacking on organic oats and barley and walking long distances to wherever with her dog Henry. Joanna now lives with her husband and said dog in Los Angeles, and they all miss DC terribly. Follow her on Twitter or contact her at joannacastlemiller.com.

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  1. Pingback: Human Rights in China: An Interview with the Laogai Museum’s Harry Wu « Joanna Castle Miller