People wearing keffiyehs, a symbol of Palestinian solidarity, in Canton Alley next to the Wing Luke Museum • Courtesy of the WLM workers

On May 22, a group of 24 staff at the Wing Luke Museum staged a walkout to protest its newest exhibit, Confronting Hate Together, which the group said mischaracterizes Palestinian liberation and critiques of Israel as terrorism and anti-Semitism. The museum closed as a result, and remains so as of publication time. Twenty-two workers out of the museum’s total staff of 52 also plan to strike until their demands are met by leadership, with whom they are in negotiations. 

“It’s important for the community to know that many of the folks who work at the museum are staunchly supportive of a pro-Palestinian strong stance for the museum,” said a protesting Wing Luke Museum worker, who requested anonymity citing safety concerns. “It’s important for us as an organization to acknowledge accountability to the communities we serve.”

According to Wing Luke Museum Workers, an Instagram account created by the group of striking staff, the workers became aware of the exhibit’s use of “Zionist language” on a display panel in the exhibit during a May 14 media preview. After staff raised concerns, the panel in question was revised, but kept the assertion that anti-Semitism is often disguised as anti-Zionism and that the use of the phrase and rallying cry “from the river to the sea” during nationwide pro-Palestinian protests at universities this year is a call for the erasure of Israel.

The panel in question at the media preview on May 14 • Photo by Savita Krishnamoorthy

“Palestinians are West Asian and there is an amazing Palestinian American community here in Seattle,” said the worker. “Our museum represents Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPIs), and we’re the only museum in the United States that speaks to that experience. That’s part of what makes the museum unique and singular.”

Confronting Hate Together is a temporary pop-up installation created in partnership between the Wing Luke Museum, the Washington State Jewish Historical Society, and the Black Heritage Society of Washington State. The exhibit explores bias and prejudice in the Asian, Jewish, and Black communities, past and present a direct response to rising anti-Semitism and racism. The Wing made headlines in September 2023 when Craig Milne, a 76-year-old man, attacked its windows with a sledgehammer while shouting anti-Chinese sentiments. He was later arrested and charged with a hate crime. 

“It’s an understatement to say that the Wing Luke Museum has been a bedrock institution in our neighborhood for years,” said Chinatown International District (CID) resident Joseph Lachman. “As somebody of both Jewish and Japanese heritage, it’s incredibly disingenuous when people mischaracterize the positions of protestors by claiming that they’re against all Jews rather than the state of Israel and its ongoing quest to wipe out Palestinians.”

Joël Barraquiel Tan, the museum’s executive director, did not respond to the IE’s request for comment, although the museum’s website and social media released a notice of temporary closure in the days after the walkout. The statement said that the museum supported the right of its staff “to express their beliefs and personal truths” and that they were engaged in “a thoughtful process of listening.” The museum will offer free admission to view the Confronting Hate Together exhibit once it reopened, the announcement said.

A screenshot of the Wing Luke Museum’s original notice of temporary closure.

“The exhibits that are housed inside of the Wing Luke Museum are the responsibility of the Wing Luke Museum,” said the worker. “A typical museum might include artifacts that are stolen from indigenous peoples, so what sets the Wing Luke Museum apart is that they have tried to decolonize the work by focusing on that community-based model.” 

This community-based exhibition model, a process introduced by former Wing Luke director and CID community leader Ron Chew, includes a community advisory committee which helps to develop exhibits, programming, and events. Unlike most museums, anyone can submit an exhibit proposal — staff, visitors, or someone who has never seen their community reflected in a museum. Proposals are then reviewed internally before the exhibits team involves that particular show’s focus communities, building out the story collaboratively.

The striking Wing Luke Museum workers allege that the development of the Confronting Hate Together exhibit did not follow the usual community advisory committee process. 

“The CID exists here as a workers’ neighborhood, primarily because of the labor of immigrants. This is a neighborhood of refugees and a community that lives here because of Western imperialism that affects the homelands of AANHPIs,” said the WLM worker. “We’re using this opportunity to hold the Wing Luke Museum accountable.”

A photo of the notice of closure outside of the museum • Photo by Alexa Strabuk 譚文曠

The group is calling on leadership to remove any language in museum publications and to question partnerships that frame Palestinian liberation and anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism; to acknowledge the limited perspectives and voices presented in Confronting Hate Together and to include those of Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslim communities; to require community advisory review of all pop-up exhibits including a community review of the revised Confronting Hate Together exhibit content; and to center perspectives that align with the museum’s mission and values, platforming stories within an anti-colonial, anti-white supremacist framework. 

“It means so much to see our people stand up and do the right thing,” said Lily Jiale Chen, an assistant curator at the Detroit Historical Museum, who visited the Wing in April and learned of the striking museum workers as the story gained national attention. Prompted by an internal decolonization effort at their own institution, Chen published a thesis in 2023 exploring the decolonization of legacy museums — that is, museums that were not created in resistance or celebration of minority groups — and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of Michigan. 

“What is colonization? That’s the major question here in the Palestinian struggle, right? A lot of people are not recognizing it as a U.S. colonial project,” said Chen. “Decolonization means more than representation. It means you cannot have money invested in Israel. You should not be taking money that has been made in Israel. It means you cannot be perpetuating and writing stories about supporting Israel and conflating Palestinian activism with anti-Semitism.”

Chen believes there are two directions a museum can go. The first is to reify the “neoliberal project of multiculturalism” and the second is to address the harmful legacies and current realities of colonialism, creating space for hard conversations, healing, and understanding. For Chen, the walkout signifies a potential shift in how seriously museums engage this subject. “These spaces have radical potential to create empathy and to engender feelings that can move material reality through the people that visit the museum. That’s really beautiful,” she said.

“I’m not surprised that the Wing Luke workers are the ones to do this because this is not coming from a legacy museum,” continued Chen. 

The workers said they’ve received community support for the walkout and strike • Courtesy of the WLM workers

Although the workers said they’ve received community support for the walkout and strike, including messages on Instagram that expressed damaged trust with the museum over the panel, there are also safety concerns for the striking workers. Out of the 24 who walked out, 18 are front-of-house or public-facing workers, and 10 work part-time, meaning they are the lowest paid and least benefited staff. 

“Community members who have spoken out in support, including myself, have received barrels of harassment on social media,” said Lachman. “I’d really like to see the museum acknowledge the harm that this has caused, acknowledging the fact that the staff of their own museum have been called horrible things. Everything from Jew haters, terrorist supporters, Nazis… and homophobes, for some reason… saying that they should be fired.”

Lachman said that he wants to be able to continue to support the museum because of how much the institution has done on behalf of AANHPI communities, but that he is unsure if he can do so in good conscience based on how the museum responds. 

On May 30, the Wing, the Washington State Jewish Historical Society, and the Black Heritage Society of Washington State jointly announced plans to to relaunch the exhibit on June 30 “to make additions to the content by offering additional framing on its genesis, the initial public reaction, and the history of our communities working together.” 

The statement also shared the museum’s plans to resume operations and requested grace and understanding while they navigated the reopening. 

A screenshot of the May 30 statement.

The striking workers, for their part, remain hopeful that the collective will reach a resolution with executive leadership soon. Their Instagram account @wlm4palestine will be updated as the negotiations continue and in the meantime, the group has started a GoFundMe to supplement potential lost wages and compensate artists impacted by the cancellation of a scheduled spring market event. So far, the campaign has raised $8,229. 

“We’re not only holding our leadership accountable, but each other, too,” said the worker. “Whether that’s just making sure we’re resting and taking care of one another, or ensuring we speak as a collective. There’s that level of accountability that also keeps us tied to the mission, and we would love to see that mirrored by leadership with us, together.”

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