In early February, the Northwest Asian Weekly broke the story of the Tacoma Art Museum’s deaccessioning of Chinese imperial robes. The story eventually made its way into the mainstream news and, though they were several supportive comments, many people did not understand what the issue was. The museum was acting in its full legal rights. The Young family had donated their collection without restriction and legally, the museum could do anything they wanted with it. What they chose to do was completely legal, but it was unethical.
Museums are meant to serve a public interest. They’re nonprofits, and they service the community they’re in. That means they should be aware of the history and context that they exist in. The Tacoma Art Museum apparently didn’t.
In November 1885, Tacoma expelled nearly the entire Chinese population from the city by rounding them all up and marching them to the train station. Two people died, and nearly every Chinese person left the city.
The Young gift was, in part, to help heal that pain. The donation helped bring Chinese culture back to the city — one of the largest cities without a Chinatown — and helped show that Tacoma did value Chinese culture. Even though it was completely within the Tacoma Art Museum’s legal right to auction the donation, it was a shortsighted decision.
We understand that sometimes, a museum can’t keep everything it’s given and it can almost never display everything it’s given, but if something as culturally important as the robes needed a new home, the first thought should’ve been, “How can we keep this in the community?”
The Young family eventually sued and then quickly dropped their lawsuit. Now, the Tacoma Art Museum has promised to not auction all the robes, but to also donate a few to a local institution. That’s good, but did we need to take so long to get to this point? (end)