Wing Luke doesn't stop at its front door

Patrons at War Baby / Love Child at Wing Luke Museum. Photo © Jake Kwong, 2013
Patrons at War Baby / Love Child at Wing Luke Museum. Photo © Jake Kwong, 2013
Patrons at War Baby / Love Child at Wing Luke Museum. Photo © Jake Kwong, 2013
Patrons at War Baby / Love Child at Wing Luke Museum. Photo © Jake Kwong, 2013

Through the On-Site Review program, 4Culture evaluates arts and heritage organizations who receive Sustained Support funding. On-Site Reviewers attend events produced or presented by recipients and write up short reviews, which give the adjudicating Sustained Support panelists a patron’s-eye-view of each organization.  Each month, the 4Culture blog presents excerpts from these reviews.  This month’s review is by Kascha Snavely.

Wing Luke is officially the “Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience.” Just as the full title is quite a mouthful, the complete mission of the museum is expansive. The museum was founded in honor of Wing Luke, a leader in the Chinese-American community of Seattle. Today, the museum has expanded from these more specific cultural roots with the intent to represent many groups living in the International District and across the Pacific Northwest. Spread across several floors and two buildings on King Street in the International District, the museum presents a range of relevant exhibits from contemporary art to detailed replicas of immigrant living quarters, to histories of conflict. During my visit the travelling exhibit War Baby / Love Child occupied the main gallery beside several rooms of permanent exhibits. The heart of the museum, however, is accessed only with a guided tour, included with all admissions: In the restored store and hotel next door, different rooms memorialize the experience of Chinese-Americans, Filipino Americans and Japanese-Americans. Over the course of an hour, a staff member led me through the narrow halls and fire-doors of the restored hotel, giving a brief history of three cycles of immigration to the US by these groups.   After the detailed tour, I wandered the permanent exhibitions with a clear historical narrative already grounding my understanding of the objects on display.

I had heard that the tours at the Wing Luke were great, but I wasn’t prepared for how engaging and detailed the hour-long tour would be. I learned more – or retained more – about Asian American immigration and Seattle’s history from her talk than I have in any history reading. She connected specific objects (a false Mason’s crest on a Chinese organization’s balcony) to specific historical moments (the prohibition years when Masonic temples escaped close scrutiny by the law). I could connect the image of a lively party with a host of dates and historical events.

I had to pull myself away from the video installations in War Baby / Love Child to get to the start of the tour. Shoes by Louie Gong caught my eyes, and an eerie video by Laurel Nakadate held my attention for half an hour. The exhibit’s narrative focused on Asian American with mixed heritage struggle to describe themselves even as the misnomers of “war babies” and “love children” fade. The work itself – rich in craft and imagery – stood on its own as good art, above and beyond a search for “identity.”

The Wing Luke literally does not stop at its front door: it extends into the renovated store and hotel next door. That building gives concrete evidence of the neighborhood’s past: Original fire doors memorialize past traumas; narrow rooms show changing living conditions; a mahjong set on an original table gives a sense of the inhabitants’ lives. For a historical museum, this is an ideal facility. This gives depth to the contemporary exhibits.

This is a text-heavy museum. Reading all the material occasionally distracted me from actually looking at the objects that really tell the story. The exhibitions themselves include complicated tombstones for each object and image.  Printed material scattered across the front desk and entry way describes many exhibits and events at the museum. The website can take a good half an hour to scan.  Only in the art exhibit did the text take second stage to the work. I learned so much from all this material, but I welcomed the break to simply see art.

Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10-5 pm.  The current exhibit #iconic runs through April 13; another exhibit, Grit, runs through October 17.