By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
What is the role of a museum in a post-COVID-19 world? Did COVID-19 change the way museums present themselves? And by the way, have you heard of these three museums?
This was the angle of the conversation at the Oct. 18 meeting of the Rotary Club of Seattle when the executive directors (EDs) of three museums—two in King County and one in Pierce—were brought on stage to talk about their museums. Moderator Jon Bridge asked each ED, in a nutshell: Who are you, what do you do, and why?
One museum needs much less introduction for the Weekly’s audience—the Wing Luke Museum. Located on King Street in the International District (ID), it’s the home of a Bruce Lee exhibit, immigration mementoes from the diverse Asians and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) who have come to Seattle, and rotating exhibits on relevant topics. Wing Luke is a cultural first responder to any attacks on the AAPI community, and recently, a victim of the same brand of violence that has plagued the ID as a direct result of the pandemic.
“Some of you might have heard that on [Sept. 14,] we experienced a hate crime, where nine out of our 10 windows were bashed in when somebody came in to do this because the Chinese ruined his life,” said Wing Luke’s ED, Joël Barraquiel Tan. “I can’t help but relate it to the series of events not just related to the quarantine, but…the sledgehammer that started to swing as far back, if not farther, than the Chinese Exclusion Act—so that the neighborhood can tell stories.” This is one reason for the existence of a museum—to showcase those stories—and Wing Luke excels in this, in part because of its “intergenerational” evolution “across different families” from “the Asian American or Pacific island diaspora…so there’s that intercultural legacy that lends itself directly to word of mouth, that kind of equity that we benefit from, plus the combination of different kinds of programs from asynchronous or digital remote to food tours to Bruce Lee camps, that there is something across the life spectrum, that’s really key.”
Tan spoke in response to a question from the audience as to how these museums generate interest and bring in audiences. If, as the Foss Waterway Seaport of Tacoma’s ED, Brent Mason, postulated, the Seaport is on the “bottom of the totem pole” in Tacoma’s art district, that not many people know they are there, or at least not in comparison to, say, the Glass Museum, then Wing Luke benefits from a close connection to the people of its neighborhood. They are Wing Luke’s raison d’etre, and part of a symbiotic relationship unlike that of other institutions.
“One thinks of going to ‘see’ something at the museums,” said Tan. “What we’ve seen over and over again in our museum is that not only people come to see us, but people go there to be seen—to be seen in their best light, to be heard in their authentic stories. Whether it’s a fourth grader or one of our new exciting partnerships,” such as with the AARP, Tan continued, “many of us—all of us—who come from migrant families know the power of intergenerational learning [and] exchange. That’s been happening and we’re going to lean into that even more now.”
The role of a museum is to educate and also to remember. Perhaps a visitor knows nothing of Tacoma as a seaport, and has never even been on the water, as Mason explained is the case for many of their younger attendees. Perhaps a visitor knows nothing of Seattle’s history writ large, and so benefits from a trip to the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) on Lake Union, “the region’s history center,” as described by MOHAI’s ED, Leonard Garfield. Or maybe you are that history, as Garfield described the Weekly’s publisher, Assunta Ng, who was in the audience.
COVID-19 and its aftermath has brought home to many the importance of sharing our stories, past and present, so that, in Garfield’s words, we’ll make “smart decisions about where we’re going next.” Or so that a community feels heard, empowered, accompanied, in good times and in bad.
“There are at least two things happening at once,” Tan said. He echoed Garfield and Mason in that “there is incredible regeneration post-quarantine, an incredible creative Renaissance in new businesses, creative endeavors, artistic pursuits, in the neighborhood.” At the same time, Tan reminded the audience that the ID “has been declared one of the U.S.’s endangered places by the National Historic trust, so we are at a pivotal moment.”
Tan, who came to the helm of the Wing Luke from Hawai’i, emphasized the pan Asian and pan Pacific nature of the museum, which is in its 55th year. “The uniqueness of this kind of solidarity, the ’pan’ value works throughout both the museum and the neighborhood…We like to think that we focus very much on local issues that have global shoots—‘local roots/global shoots.’”
Like Seaport, MOHAI, and all businesses since 2020, the Wing Luke pivoted to meet the needs of visitors during the pandemic by providing a wide array of remote activities, many of which continue today because, as Garfield explained, it’s important to maintain an audience who because of the pandemic were able to “visit” a museum in a way maybe they could not prior. It was a silver lining, of sorts, that those with financial, transportation, or ability barriers, could partake of art, history, and culture in a new way, thanks to innovations during the lockdowns.
Again with that dual focus, past and present, hardships and triumphs, the Wing Luke is looking ahead. They are excited about a new initiative called Arts and Culture as Apothecary, which Tan said, “recognizes that the work of culture and arts drives [and/or] accelerates much better health, much better government, and much better economy.” And, they are looking at a future without an ethnic or racial majority.
“Given the demographic trends in Washington alone, I would venture to say, even if you are not Asian or Asian appearing, I’m going to ask you about your grandchildren…your step kids, I’m going to ask you about your daughter’s partner, and then tell me [they’re] not Black, Indigenous, or people of color.” In this “rise of the mixed race demographic,” there’s “a lot of exciting potential,” proclaimed Tan. “We believe many more different kinds of people will come, and for now, we hope that that includes some of you.”
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.