By Tim Gruver
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Ellen Ferguson can recall spending some of her favorite childhood memories in the same kind of place where she works today: museums.
As the Director of Community Relations at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, Ferguson has enjoyed a 40-year career with what she describes as one of the mainstays of her life.
Visiting the Bishop Museum in Hawaii as a young child, she remembers being awestruck by its contents.
“I would say that both my parents had an interest in museums,” Ferguson said. “I remember riding around the museum on my dad’s shoulders and being awed by the feather capes, the ancient Hawaiian robes. I was very fortunate to have those experiences and being able to travel with my family.”
For Ferguson, museums are places that can not only change the lives of their visitors, but preserve the lives of the people they represent.
“It’s never just about the artifact, although I do think artifacts have some power,” Ferguson said. “It’s about the stories that the artifacts tell. That’s what the best museums do — they use the collections they hold to illustrate, to tell stories.”
Beyond the Burke Museum, Ferguson wears a number of other hats, serving as president of the Ethnic Arts Council of the Seattle Art Museum and as a board co-chair of the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience.
With her many responsibilities, Ferguson said that she appreciates how busy her career keeps her from day to day.
“It suits my personality,” Ferguson said. “I am not the kind of person who would enjoy sitting behind a desk all day.”
The Burke Museum takes up at least a few hours of her day, while The Wing Luke Museum brings her down to the International District several days a week. Ferguson said that she enjoys how often her job allows her to get out and meet people.
“I love learning about what’s happening in the community,” Ferguson said. There’s lots of positive things happening in our community. There are also some challenging things in our community. I want to be aware of those things and see how I can be involved or supportive of making our community a stronger, more equitable, healthier place for everyone.”
Ferguson’s career also represents decades of philanthropy work, which she began with her parents.
In 1987, the three of them established the Hugh and Jane Ferguson Foundation, which supports nonprofits in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.
The foundation is dedicated to the preservation and restoration of natural habitats and wildlife. Ferguson currently serves as its president following her parents’ passing.
As a volunteer at Seattle Children’s Hospital for over 30 years, Ferguson proudly carried the nickname “Museum Lady” while sharing artifacts with young visitors.
“Getting to handle a real dinosaur bone, a real dinosaur tooth, was exciting to everyone, including the staff there,” Ferguson said. “That was so important to them to have contact with real things, in this case real artifacts. It was some kind of touchstone to them. There was some kind of power in having real things.”
Northwest Native American artifacts, according to Ferguson, also drew great interest from patients for their beauty and their versatility.
“They’re very beautiful, they’re very impressive to kids,” Ferguson said. “They’re inventive things. They were always impressed by the arctic things and that they could always develop these little tools to make their lives easier to subsist in.”
Ferguson counted Emeritus Professor James Nason of the University of Washington’s Department of Anthropology as a teacher who greatly influenced her career.
Nason, a member of the Comanche nation, was among the first to introduce Ferguson to museum work and their importance to communities.
“I learned an enormous amount from him about museums and their potential, just how they work and what they can do at their best to serve the community,” Ferguson said. “I also learned a lot from a fairly early age in my 20s about Native American issues from someone who was an enrolled tribal member. And I count him as a good friend.”
Ferguson also cited former Executive Director of the Wing Luke Museum, Ron Chew, as a source of inspiration for making the museum a pillar in the community.
“He’s just an incredible community activist and historian,” Ferguson said. “He and the staff that he built really changed the trajectory of the Wing into the truly community-based museum that it is today.”
As immigrants around the country face increasingly uncertain futures under the Trump administration’s immigration policies, Ferguson said that the Wing Luke Museum has made new efforts to reach out to immigrant communities.
“Frankly, we’ve all been finding our way to best serve immigrant communities and let them know that they’re always welcome at the Wing and that we’re a supportive and safe place for them,” Ferguson said. “We’ve been doing a series of forms and exhibits of importance of the immigrant communities to Seattle.”
A fourth-generation Washingtonian, Ferguson said that Washington has yet to come to terms with its historic injustices — from its treatment of Native Americans to its internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. For Ferguson, the state’s strength lies in the continuing work of its diverse communities.
“It’s not always been, in any way, inclusive,” Ferguson said. “It feels to me that it is increasingly inclusive and places like the Wing Luke Museum and the Burke, in part, are a part of that. As more immigrants come in, APA continues to strengthen and diversify the community, which is good for us all. It’s not been an easy road, but we’re lucky that Seattle is a progressive community working toward an ideal, an aspiration of inclusiveness.”
Tim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.