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Home Inclusiveness Cassie Chinn Interview
Interview with Cassie Chinn, Deputy Executive Director, Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, Seattle, WA
Cassie Chinn, Deputy Executive Director at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, oversees planning and implementation of exhibition, collection, public programming, and education initiatives in collaboration with community members. In her 20 years with the museum, she has worked with numerous community advisory committees and community members to create exhibitions, gather oral histories, and produce other museum projects. During the Museum’s recent capital project, she led community-based program planning and served on the Design Team. She holds a BA and MA in art history as well as a Master in Teaching.
What led you to your field?
I started at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience (The Wing) as a college intern. I was studying Art History at the time, and most people would ask, “What are you going to do with that?” My responses were either work in a museum or teach. I was home for the summer and thought it’d be a good opportunity to gain some experience in the museum field. At that time, The Wing was in our previous home, a small rehabilitated 1930s garage known as “China Garage” in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District.
I still remember the moment that would set the direction for my future. I was sitting on the floor of a small room that was both an office space and our library resource room. The carpet was worn from age, and I was crammed underneath the room’s central table, peering into a box with files from an oral history project that the museum had just completed. There I found an oral history that had been done with my grandmother. I learned stories about her and my family that I never knew.
We eventually went on to create an exhibition, traveling display, and book from those oral histories. The impact it had on individuals, families, and our community overall was powerful, and it’s driven me ever since.
How does what you do relate to historic preservation? Why do you think historic preservation matters?
Place holds incredible power and meaning. It’s not just something that exists outside of us; place impacts who we are, how we think about ourselves, how we relate to others, and how we move forward.
For all 40+ years of our existence, The Wing has been located in the Chinatown-International District, a 100+-year-old neighborhood and a Historic District on the National Register. We are the only pan-Asian Pacific American museum in the nation, dedicated to connecting everyone to the rich history, diverse cultures, and art of Asian Pacific Americans through vivid storytelling and inspiring experiences. With the Chinatown-International District as our home base, we are dedicated to preserving this special place that gives us our roots and meaning, sharing about it with our broad visitors, and ensuring that it endures through the generations. We do this through our exhibitions, community programs, collections, and tours, including those within the museum and throughout our neighborhood.
What courses do you recommend for students interested in this field?
I would encourage students to learn about the stories of the people and communities who built the historic buildings and districts and gain further understanding about the context for their creation. Courses within American Ethnic Studies programs are valuable because they oftentimes provide insights, perspectives, and meanings from the communities themselves.
Do you have a favorite preservation project? What about it made it special?
The Wing is currently located in a rehabilitated 1910 historic hotel, a contributing building to our National Register Historic District, known as the Freeman Hotel. It is also referred to as the East Kong Yick Building because it was built in 1910 as a matched-pair with its neighboring building to the west by the Kong Yick Investment Company, formed by more than 170 Chinese American pioneers who pooled their money to build the core of Seattle’s Chinatown. The building remained in the hands of the Company until 2003 when they unanimously decided to sell the East Building to The Wing so we could expand and make our new home there.
This project was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In 1997-1998, we had worked on a documentary on the buildings and interviewed elders within the Chinese American community, asking them what they would like to have happen to the building, which at that time had been vacant in the upper floors since the 1970s. They replied that it was sorely underutilized and that they wanted to have new life breathed into it. Though many years passed before the museum even thought about the East Kong Yick Building as its possible new home, it was powerful to know that we were fulfilling the passions and hopes of our elders through this project – now, a 60,000 square foot building that includes preserved portions of the historic hotel, and a preserved import-export store and family apartment, along with contemporary galleries, public art, and new gathering places, and serves as a critical anchor for the Chinatown-International District, source of pride for our communities, and valuable asset for future generations.
Can you tell us what you are working on right now?
There are so many projects to choose from! I’m currently working on an exhibition called, Grit: Asian Pacific Pioneers Across the Northwest, that will immerse visitors in the stories of approximately 15 Asian Pacific American heritage sites in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska. The show opens December 13, 2013 and runs through October 19, 2014. In the exhibition, visitors can learn about the stories of William Kaulehelehe, a Native Hawaiian teacher working among laborers in Fort Vancouver, Washington; Doc Hay and Lung On, integrated citizens and business owners in John Day, Oregon; ninth grade Japanese American students experiencing their first Christmas at the Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho; and Chinese American cannery workers on the Star of Bengal, shipwrecked in 1908, to name a few.
How do you think the national historic preservation programs help your community?
At The Wing, we emphasize recognizing our existing assets, putting the spotlight on them, and making them shine! It’s been critical for us to work with our communities from the ground-up, ensuring that the special places that we come from and that inform who we are today are around for future generations as well. National historic preservation programs are a big help toward these efforts because they can provide not only that stamp of approval, but also link us to resources and help share about our community with others.
The ACHP's mission is "preserving America's heritage;” can you give us an example of how your community is preserving their heritage?
Exhibitions and projects at The Wing are created directly by community members. Volunteers come together and meet for over a year to determine the main messages and themes of our exhibitions, develop their storylines, conduct research and gather materials, determine the design and format of the shows, and connect projects to even more community members. (For more information on our community-based exhibition model, visit our Web site at: http://wingluke.org/pages/process/introduction.html.) As such, our community members are actively involved in an ongoing basis to preserve and share their heritage in a dynamic, living way. From exhibitions such as Grit: Asian Pacific Pioneers Across America to Hometown Desi: South Asian Culture in the Pacific Northwest (opens October 3), our community is passionately working together to ensure America’s heritage is preserved, shared, and celebrated!