The idea of a museum as a community anchor is not a new one. But what makes the Wing Luke Museum (a Blue Star Museums participant) so extraordinary is its level of community engagement. As Executive Director Beth Takekawa explained, the museum draws its roots from the spirit of Wing Luke, a young Chinese-American leader, and his “interest in cultural pride and heritage and also civic engagement.” Luke arrived in the U.S. as an immigrant, working his way up to assistant attorney general and then Seattle councilman before he died in a plane crash only three years into office. The funds to start the museum came partially from money the community had raised to help search for his plane. That spirit of community is the basis of the museum’s curatorial philosophy, which relies on deep and active involvement with the community to decide and shape what the museum presents. As Takekawa said, “It has been a thread that’s carried through with a lot of the same people, or their descendants, being the ones who support the museum today.” In her own words, here’s Takekawa on the idea of community as curator, and how community engagement can lead to community empowerment.
Telling the Communities’ Stories
We share the stories, the culture, and the art of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, and we share it with everyone. We’re a nationally recognized museum known for our community’s role in creating exhibitions, and also the community’s role in supporting their own museum.
One of the distinctive things about the Wing Luke Museum is that we tell the stories of many different Asian ethnic groups. The last time we counted, more than 26 different Asian countries of origin and ethnicities are represented here. It’s a tribute to the area and also the people who’ve built this museum because…sometimes they have histories of warring with each other, and so it is not easy to have it all in one place. [It’s also] a growing mixed-race and mixed-ethnic community and includes a good number of adoptees from Asia. As far as the communities that we serve—our visitors, our donors—they are 35 percent Asian-Pacific American. That’s a very high participation [rate] in the arts for a community of color.
Empowerment is our goal, community empowerment. [This mission] probably reflects our origin as a small museum with no endowment and few resources. So back then, and even now, our greatest asset was and still is our people. And a very important part of [those] people are the artists from our community. Our core constituency is our number one asset. The mission of the museum is that rather than having other people tell our stories, it is an opportunity for us to tell our own stories in our own words. That’s a really basic thing that is from way back and still continues till today. It is a differentiator, and I think it is why the museum has been supported over the years, even though some of the stories are not particularly pleasant. But if it’s true, then it has power.
Practicing Community-Based Exhibition Development
People are the core [and] relationships are the foundation for our work. Community empowerment and ownership are the goal. I would say labor-intensive work is the route to the goal. As a differentiator from a standard curatorial museum, our staff relinquishes control [of creating the exhibit]. Our staff is not here to [advance] their individual vision; the staff actually does not decide the themes and the story [of our exhibitions]. That’s determined by the community. I would say that’s a fundamental difference in the approach of the Wing.
In practice it does take museum staff with professional skills [to facilitate this process] because you’re working with communities, you’re translating their personal stories into a 3-D experience. That is, it’s both true to the teller of the stories and it’s also meaningful to the visitor and the person who’s experiencing it.
We put a high value on certain skills that might be different from other arts organizations. Facilitation, organizing, relationship-building—those are of great value to the work that we do. We’ve found that if it’s very clear to the community that you are there for the long term and that you are committed to long-term relationships with people and communities and their organizations, that many differences and shortcomings are met. [People are] more patient. They support you even though you’re not perfect. They have more understanding even though nobody ends up personally agreeing with every single thing that is presented in the museum. But if the commitment to relationships is there, it crosses a lot of barriers.
Facing the Challenges of Being Community-Driven
One challenge is, when you’re community-driven, and especially as we have so many communities [involved], that there are such immense needs and demands. How do we appropriately address them? It could be that’s more of a business growth challenge, but it’s important. I remember when this museum first shifted to be Asian-American as opposed to the folk art of Asia. In the museum field, there was a lot of skepticism about if there was sufficient material for a whole museum on Asian Americans. With the experience of [accomplishments] at the Wing, that is not a top-of-mind question anymore in the field. When you’re close to your community, you know what the issues are; you’re reminded of them every day. So that is a challenging thing—how do you best use your resources and serve those needs?
If an institution or an arts organization is trying to engage with the community, the starting position has to be to respect the historic cultural assets of that community or neighborhood or whatever it might be. Sometimes [the] arts come in… as sort of a foreign energy, and I would say that doesn’t work with community engagement. The second thing is [you have] to prioritize building long-term relationships. If people come in and want to do a one-off, like an event that has diverse faces or something like that, that is not really community engagement. It does have to be a commitment to longterm relationships.
A third thing is that it’s important for museums and arts organizations to understand the ecology of their community…. The only way you can do that is by being involved and participating in issues that are not just your own. So in our case, for instance, immigration rights is a very hot issue and it is being worked on by many different components of our community. Some people are policy people, some are political advocacy, some are social services. Our role in that ecology is that we can tell the stories and help inspire people. People don’t have to agree with the issue to come and engage with the Wing.
I do feel like museums can be life-giving, and we can be relevant, and we can be loved by our constituents. It is a role that needs to be played.