Seattle is home to all sorts of interesting “niche” museums, and while I haven’t had a chance to see them all yet, I wanted to share with you my photos of the permanent exhibitions of the The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. Located in Seattle’s International District, the museum is the only pan-Asian museum in the US, and serves as both a look at the history of Asian immigration to the Pacific Northwest as well as a space to explore contemporary American identity politics.
The permanent exhibitions include biographical information on Wing Luke, who was born in China and immigrated to the US when he was 10. A WWII veteran, he was the first Asian-American elected to public office in the Pacific Northwest. He served on the Seattle city council until his death in a plane crash in 1965.
In the New York Times review of the reopening of the museum in 2008, Edward Rothstein writes,
Like other identity museums, it is partly meant to be a community institution, offering a cultural home for local Asian-Americans, paying homage to their accomplishments and recounting how they overcame the many obstacles once thrown in their way….
The idea of an Asian-American identity is not based on a shared language or history at all. The museum’s pan-Asian reach encompasses perhaps half the globe, stretching from Hawaii to Pakistan. The only shared experience may be a history of discrimination in their American immigrations, and, perhaps, proximity in this Seattle neighborhood, where Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Koreans and Cambodians have settled in unmarked sub-regions.
But as time goes on, how fundamental will that history be for these cultures? And how much does it already vary, particularly since some recent groups came as refugees seeking protection? Making the discriminatory experience central might have been useful in building political clout in the 1960s. In this museum, though, it seems less crucial, and differences between these cultures may be more revealing and deserve more exploration.
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. (2008)
I disagree. While the idea of a pan-Asian museum may seem like it is lumping together a multitude of cultures under the topic of the oppression of Asian Americans, the museum is more than the history of immigration and racism from the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act. It’s a space to explore contemporary identity in exhibitions like Under My Skin and War Baby/Love Child. The biggest thing the NYT got wrong was the part about “paying homage to [Asian American] accomplishments and recounting how they overcame the many obstacles once thrown in their way” (emphasis mine).
The obstacles aren’t the same as they were in the 1880s or 1940s or 1970s, but discrimination, stereotypes (both positive and negative and all problematic), and trying to find one’s identity are still issues. If they were not, would we still have to discuss why Cibu’s “Asian inspired” line or racist Halloween costumes are offensive? Would we have a tumblr dedicated to Creepy White Guys (re: Asian women) on online dating sites or this amazing video about “where are you really from”? Would we have this constant narrative of a white man saving Japan (Shogun, Heroes, The Last Samurai) or remaking Asian, especially Japanese, films with Keanu Reeves? Would we have the following examples of using perceived exoticism to sell food and goods?
On a personal and visual note, my favorite part of the museum is the Letter Cloud installation piece. The letters, reminiscent of like prayer flags or omikuji, are suspended in a place with wind and sun and the sound of the ocean.
The Wing Luke is an excellent experiential museum, not unlike the Tenement Museum in New York City, which I am also quite fond of. Exploring the past is wonderful, but it’s too easy to pat ourselves on the back and say that “it sure is better now that we’ve defeated racism” (and racially based sexism and classism, etc.). Viewing the past parallel to the present is critical in understanding what our contemporary challenges are–and how far we still have to go.