Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum Staff Walks Out Over Exhibit On Hate

Twenty-six Wing Luke Museum staff members walked out Wednesday in protest of the museum’s “Confronting Hate Together” exhibit on its scheduled opening day, saying a portion of the exhibit “conflate[s] anti-Zionism as antisemitism,” according to their social media post. 

The walkout, which involved about half the museum’s staff, has shut the museum down for several days (a reopening date has not been set), and the employees involved say they plan to withhold their labor until their demands are met.

Staff participating in the walkout have four main demands for the museum: Remove any language that “attempt[s] to frame Palestinian liberation and anti-Zionism as antisemitism”; have a “community review” of the exhibit; “acknowledge the limited perspectives presented in this exhibition,” namely those of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslim communities; and center “voices that align with the museum’s mission & values.”

Employees participating in the walkout did not immediately respond to an inquiry Friday.

The exhibit, scheduled to run through June 30, compares historical and contemporary responses to acts of hate. A collaboration among the Wing Luke Museum (which focuses on the culture, art and history of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders), the Black Heritage Society of Washington State and the Washington State Jewish Historical Society, it focuses on the experiences of Jewish, Black and Asian communities around Seattle. 

One particular portion of the exhibit staff took issue with was a panel from the Jewish Historical Society. The panel starts by saying, “Today, antisemitism is often disguised as anti-Zionism,” and includes examples such as the phrase “Stop the killing” spray-painted on a Mercer Island synagogue, “as if the Jews of Mercer Island could control the actions of the Israeli government.”

Notably, part of the panel states, “On university campuses, pro-Palestinian groups have voiced support for Hamas (which is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government) and a Palestinian state stretching ‘from the river to the sea,’ a phrase defined by the erasure of Israel.”

The phrase “from the river to the sea” raises concerns of antisemitism, as some view it as a call for eradicating Israel and building a single state on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, in line with Hamas’ rhetoric. Others disagree, saying it calls for peace, justice and equality for Palestinians. Israel’s prime minister and the Likud Party have used the phrase to describe the goal of having Israel’s sovereignty span the entire area, dismissing a two-state solution.

Though the conflict between museum staff and leadership reached an inflection point this week, staff began raising concerns about the museum leadership’s approach to discussing the war as early as Dec. 3. According to the staff group’s Instagram, they were first made aware of the panel on May 14 and raised their concerns shortly after.

The staff launched their demands onto social media Thursday. They detailed their love for the Wing Luke Museum, but said they believe their experiences as Asian Americans and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders are intertwined with the experiences of Palestinians: “It sets a dangerous precedent of platforming colonial, white supremacist perspectives and goes against the Museum’s mission as a community-based museum advancing racial and social equity,” those staffers said in an Instagram post.

Steve McLean, director of communications for the museum, said it has been “working with our staff to address their calls to action” and their four demands. He said programs were and are being developed so other communities, including Arab American communities, are represented.

McLean added that leaders did not ignore staff concerns about the exhibit, and that when concerns were raised about a specific panel, the “museum acted very quickly to engage the partner in question to revise some of the language.” 

McLean said that, “Certainly adding voices that may even stand in contrast to some of the voices used in this exhibit, that would be something we are interested in pursuing.”

The leadership team on the exhibit says the majority of what drove the collaboration among the three organizations was that “these communities were redlined together,” said McLean, referring to the practice of denying people of color and low-income residents access to mortgage loans and homes in more “desirable” areas. “So collaboration only makes sense today, and back then.” 

Lisa Kranseler, executive director of the Washington State Jewish Historical Society, said the intention of “Confronting Hate Together” was to show how Black, Jewish and Asian American communities came together around redlining, and “it never was intended to exclude anyone. It was always intended as a beginning conversation and to inspire all groups to put on exhibits and have dialogues and conversations.”

The project started a year and a half ago — before Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack in Israel — after Kranseler viewed the New-York Historical Society’s “Confronting Hate” exhibit in fall 2022. The rise of hate crimes in Washington also spurred exhibit organizers.

On Tuesday, during the exhibit’s opening reception, Joël Barraquiel Tan, executive director of Wing Luke, spoke about his anticipation for reactions and feedback to the exhibit. 

“I don’t hold any illusions that there’s not going to be disagreement or conflict that comes from presenting this work in this time,” Barraquiel Tan said. “Spoken like a true masochist, I’m even looking forward to the disagreements, because I think we’re in a moment that we’re being tested in our ability to tolerate each other more through differences.”

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