When the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, with it came a dark time for the arts. To halt the spread of the virus, our TeenTix partner organizations closed. Museums like Wing Luke, the Burke Museum, and MoPOP were closed to the public for what was then an unknown duration of time. However, this dark spot was not dark for ingenuity. Sparks of light appeared as our TeenTix partners found innovative ways to reopen safely. I visited these three museums with the initial intention of writing an article on the ways they had adapted to reopen during the pandemic. Unfortunately, we have recently seen a sharp uptake in cases, and with that, these museums have once again closed their doors. The state has issued a timeline that mandates museums to be closed until January 4, 2021. The museums continue their hard work through this lockdown, balancing the health of employees and patrons with their commitment to enthrall, inspire, entertain, and inform.
In my visits to these museums, this commitment became exceptionally clear.
When I walked into MoPOP, all groups stood over six feet apart and hand sanitizer was abundant. I was given a thoroughly cleaned stylus to use to touch screens throughout the museum. Small things like this immediately showed some of the adjustments MoPOP had made before they reopened. I strolled through an exhibit on Minecraft, walking past human sized endermen figures and mineshafts built into the walls. However, the most engaging part of the exhibit for me were videos focusing on how, to many, Minecraft is a world to explore one’s own ideas in any way they might like. That idea is very powerful during COVID times when some of us try to view this as a time to delve into new things. There were other fascinating exhibits I explored; they included an exhibit on the rich cultural history of tattoo, as well as exhibits on musicians from the Pacific Northwest area. All of the exhibits allowed me to do what for some, Minecraft does: reflect and explore.
As MoPOP has closed, they remain doing everything they can virtually. They have virtual live music events, with schedules online. You can find more information on their website.
The Wing Luke Museum is filled with a host of exhibits on Asian American history, art, and cultures. The Wing Luke had initially closed for six months. In March, when COVID hit, the Wing Luke and the Chinatown International District first felt the economic pains that came with COVID. The stigmatization of the pandemic originating in Wuhan, exacerbated by people’s prejudices, led to fewer people visiting the district and the museum. To add to this, the Wing Luke was at the peak of a fundraising season. They realized that these unprecedented times required unprecedented solutions and immediately took action on alternative fundraising and outreach. Chrissy Shimizu, director of individual giving at the Wing Luke, framed it this way, “We were seeing all of these long form videos that were scripted and didn’t come from the heart; all of the personal engagement that people get from being together did not translate. Instead, we encouraged our board of trustees to reach out to their friends who would usually attend fundraising events with them and ask how they were doing and hear what they would like from us as a museum.”
This creativity and commitment to finding new ways to keep the Wing Luke vibrant during COVID continued as the museum re-opened. Rahul Gupta, Director of Education and Tours, and his team worked hard to develop a highly individualized and personal virtual tour system. “When people visit the Wing, we want them to connect deeply with their own story and how that connects with the story of the museum and the people who first built our building. We didn’t want to lose that exchange, our ability to talk with folks who are on our tours and be part of a co-learning experience,” Shimizu added. The virtual tour is a live Zoom call. Tour staff walks through the museum while being able to interact with the group and answer questions. The intimacy that might come with an in-person tour is maintained in a safe way. On the virtual tour you can explore the Yick Fung Chinese import store, the bedrooms of what was once the Freeman Hotel, and several other exhibits. Virtual tours are still happening now, and you can book one on the Wing’s website.
Now, in lockdown, the Wing is not losing ambition. They have also transitioned towards offering more online orders and their marketplace, separate from the museum, remains open for in-person visits.
The new building of the Burke Museum has been there for over a year now. From outside you can see a large fossil through a massive glass window, giving passers-by a taste of the wonders that are inside. When I visited the Burke, the experience was almost exactly how it would be if COVID had not happened, with the exception of social distance markers and mask wearing.
Through the three floors of the Burke, I explored time periods, geology, plants, animals, the climate crisis, and the art and culture of Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. The Burke has a massive treasure trove of fossils, art and information that is now not accessible in person. In response to the latest round of closures, the Burke, like MoPop has created an exciting virtual alternative. A lot of their artifacts and information is available on their website, in a section they call “Burke from Home.” They have videos, articles and image galleries on everything from identifying the plants of Washington to drawing our surroundings. They have periodic Q&As with their experts, drawing activities for kids and families, entire virtual exhibits, and cooking tutorials. The Burke’s response to this second lockdown has been to make their wonders available online and then some. You can learn and explore on their website just as much variety as you would in-person.
Back at the Wing, Shimizu pointed out, “The International District is a more vibrant neighborhood ecosystem than any other neighborhood in Seattle. If [the historic businesses in the ID] were to close and go out of business, they might be replaced by something that doesn’t carry on the cultural memory and cultural significance of the neighborhood and AAPI culture and identity. The museum is a cultural and economic anchor... A lot of people who visit the museum will go shopping or eating in the neighborhood. We want to make sure that when we [make] adjustments to our business model, we also pass on the love to ensure the well being of businesses in the area.”
Local arts organizations serve a role like this in their respective neighborhoods. They are in a way the keystone species of their neighborhood ecosystems. By supporting arts partners like the Wing Luke, the Burke, and MoPOP, we are a key part of this ecosystem. COVID cannot stop us from doing our part. For more information on ways to stay engaged with and support these museums, you can visit their respective websites.
For more information on MoPOP, see here.
For more information on The Wing Luke Museum, see here.
For more information on the Burke Museum, see here.