The Wing: An Advocate for Community-Driven Exhibitions

In September 1967, the Anacostia Community Museum (ACM) in Washington, D.C. opened its doors.  Founders hoped that it could help reinforce a sense of place, purpose, and history for the local African American community.  Since its opening, the ACM has been well received, with one journalist suggesting it should be credited with pioneering the concept of a museum that went outside of its walls to engage its community.[1]

There is, however, one neighborhood museum that opened before the ACM.  The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District opened four months before its counterpart in the nation’s capital.[2]  Named after Wing Luke, a Chinese American politician who advocated civil rights in Seattle during the 1950s and ‘60s, the museum’s mission is to engage Asian Pacific American communities and the public in exploring issues related to the culture, art, and history of Asian Pacific Americans.  In essence, the museum presents important issues in U.S. history through an Asian Pacific American lens.

The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle's Chinatown-International District.
The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District.

One way the museum serves its mission is through its community exhibition process.  Generally lasting 12 to 18 months, the process involves museum staff and community members collaborating to create exhibits that address issues relevant to Asian Pacific Americans.  The core of the team is the Community Advisory Committee (CAC), a group of ten to fifteen individuals with some direct connection to the exhibition topic.  As a result, the CAC serves as the main decision-making body and is charged with developing the main messages, themes, and content of the exhibit (did I mention the Wing has no curators on staff?).  Along with the advisory committee, community volunteers assist museum staff in gathering oral histories, photographs, and artifacts for the exhibit.  Later, after it has been installed, these volunteers assume the roles of docents, speakers, and programming participants.[3]

One example of a community-driven exhibition at the Wing was Sikh Community, Over 100 Years in the Pacific Northwest (check out the online version of the exhibition here).  Despite living in the U.S. for over a century, many Americans knew little about Sikh culture.  In fact, after September 11, 2001, many Sikh men—who wrap their hair in a dastar, or turban—were accused of being terrorists.  As a result, many were victims of hate crimes.[4]

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From October 2005 to April 2006, visitors to the Wing could see one of its community-driven exhibitions, Sikh Community: Over 100 Years in the Pacific Northwest.

With hopes of challenging negative stereotypes and fostering understanding about Sikh culture, faith, and history, the Wing partnered with The Sikh Coalition.  The organization works toward civil rights for Sikhs and helped the museum reach out to the Sikh community (the organization even produced solicitation forms in Punjabi, the native language of many Sikhs).[5]

Jasmit Singh (left), director of education at the Seattle branch of The Sikh Coalition, gives a tour of the Sikh Community exhibition at the Wing (courtesy Steve Ringman, The Seattle Times).
Jasmit Singh (left), director of education at the Seattle branch of The Sikh Coalition, gives a tour of the Sikh Community exhibition at the Wing (courtesy Steve Ringman, The Seattle Times).
Vishavjit Singh, creator of the website Sikhtoons.com, was one member of the Sikh community who participated in the Wing's exhibition about Sikh culture.  He provided this satirical Time magazine cover for the exhibition.
Vishavjit Singh, creator of the website Sikhtoons.com, was one member of the Sikh community who participated in the Wing’s exhibition about Sikh culture. He provided this satirical Time magazine cover for the exhibition.

Along with temporary exhibitions such as Sikh Community, the Wing has three permanent exhibitions that explore the life of Wing Luke, the history of the Chinatown-International District, and how one Taiwanese immigrant connects to his heritage while living in the U.S.[6]  The museum also offers traveling exhibitions, allowing members of the Asian Pacific American community to share their stories throughout the country.[7]

When it opened in May 1967, the Wing occupied a small storefront on 8th Avenue South in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District.  Since then, it has been added to the Smithsonian Institution’s Affiliations Program and, as the only national museum dedicated to exploring the Asian Pacific American experience, has been well-received in Seattle and across the country.[8]  In 2002, the museum raised over $23 million to rehabilitate a historic building in the Chinatown-International District as its new, 60,000 square feet home.[9]  Even with these great changes, the Wing has stayed true to the spirit of advocacy that defined its namesake, Wing Luke.  Today, the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle continues to engage and inspire the Asian Pacific American community, which ultimately allows all visitors to “step into a uniquely American story.”[10]

Wing Luke, civil rights advocate and politician.
Wing Luke, Chinese American politician and civil rights advocate.

 

[1] Andrea A. Burns, From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013) 36-39.

[2] “About Us,” Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, 2014, http://www.wingluke.org/about-us/; “Mission and History,” Anacostia Community Museum, 2014, http://anacostia.si.edu/Museum/Mission_History.htm.

[3] “Community Process: Exhibit Team,” Wing Luke Museum, 2014, http://www.wingluke.org/exhibit-team.

[4] “Sikh Community Exhibition: Mis-Identity,” Wing Luke Museum, 2014, http://www.wingluke.org/mis-identity.

[5] “Mission and History,” The Sikh Coalition, 2012, http://www.sikhcoalition.org/about-us/mission-a-history.

[6] “Exhibitions,” Wing Luke Museum, 2014, http://www.wingluke.org/exhibitions.

[7] “Traveling Exhibitions,” Wing Luke Museum, 2014, http://www.wingluke.org/traveling-exhibitions.

[8] “In the News,” Wing Luke Museum, 2014,  http://www.wingluke.org/in-news.

[9] “Building and Architecture,” Wing Luke Museum, 2014,  http://www.wingluke.org/building-architecture.

[10] “About Us,” Wing Luke Museum, 2014,  http://www.wingluke.org/about-us.

7 thoughts on “The Wing: An Advocate for Community-Driven Exhibitions

  1. Thank you for the information about the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, Eric! It sounds like they are doing great things, and that it can be a model for other museums who want to engage their community by being more participatory!

  2. “It is possible that over time, as Asian immigrant groups make their way even further into the mainstream of American life, that this museum will become more historical, more curatorial and less communal. In the meantime its celebrations are worth celebrating, as are the communities it serves.” This quote comes from the closing paragraph in an article by the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/31/arts/design/31muse.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0) examining the Wing Luke Museum. I think the article brings up an interesting question in regards to this week’s readings. Have African American museums become more historical and less community oriented over the past 40 years?

  3. Wow, this is a great connection. It is a huge feat to cover a category as broad as Asian Pacific American, and I wonder how the African American neighborhood museums of the 1960s are dealing with broader definitions of African American identity today, as immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America have come in larger numbers in the last few decades. Addressing the Sikh population appears to have been a big step in who the museum includes in its community.

  4. They created an exhibit representing the group of interest and created labels in their language? I love it! Seems like such a small thing to do, but it must make a huge difference in helping Sikh community members feel welcome to the museum.

  5. This sounds like an amazing collaborative process. I really liked how the community volunteers, who were apart of the process to build the exhibition, were then included in the programming aspects after the exhibit opened. It really invests people in the whole process, empowering them to feel included and active participants.

  6. I am really interested in the fact that they don’t have curators. I wonder how that decision was reached and what they are saying but not having curators on staff. It seems like a really big statement towards community involvement and ownership. I would love to know if the reasoning behind not having a curator was explained when the museum opened.

    1. You bring up a great point, Caitlin. The role of the curator is evolving,and it is just as important today for a curator to be a facilitator and it is for them to handle objects. To your and Kahla’s points, I wonder how the role of programmers and facilitators is being covered at the Wing Luke.

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