by Yuko Kodama
Beth Takekawa came home one day to a newsletter from her grandmother’s church on her dining table. The priest had written about “this little immigrant lady” in his congregation, and Takekawa read on, wondering who this new person was. She got a jolt when she realized he was writing about her grandmother. To Takekawa, her grandmother was a giant in her household. She says this was the first time she realized how important perspective is in conveying a story.
Beth Takekawa, the executive director of the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, is retiring after nearly 25 years of leadership at this 54-year-old cultural pillar in Seattle’s Chinatown International District (CID). Wartime took the Takekawa family to the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho during WWII. Post-war, the family moved to Minnesota with the help of a Japanese American relocation committee. Minnesota was where Beth grew up, but she gravitated to Seattle, where her family has roots just a few blocks away from the museum.
If it weren’t for spaces that honor the stories of displaced families like the Takekawas, this history and experience would be lost. When many other museums focus on art pieces and artifacts, “The Wing,” as many endearingly refer to the museum, prominently celebrates and honors the voices and stories from the Asian Pacific American community.
The Wing’s signature process for developing exhibits involves community members in decision-making. Takekawa recounts one particular project at The Wing about the Cambodian American experience: The staff conceptualized it as a reflection on the killing fields experience, but the community countered otherwise.
“They said ‘we don’t want our community’s story to be defined by the killing fields experience.’ [As a result], the killing fields experience was included in the exhibit, but it wasn’t the focal point.”
The exhibit in question, Takekawa says, was one called “When the Naga Sheds its Skin.”
“The Naga is a serpent and [is part of] the origin story of the people,” Takekawa says. “So there was this serpent that was going through the whole gallery, in and out of the walls … and there was a part where it did go through the killing fields experience, but it was just so much richer, more real, and more meaningful.”
Takekawa says this usually happens with The Wing’s projects.
“We can only predetermine so much, and surprising things happen. There are certain values that the staff have, and one of them is that we willingly relinquish control.”
The Wing has been recognized nationally for its work. The museum is affiliated with the National Park Service and is the first Smithsonian affiliate in the Pacific Northwest. The museum was also named one of America’s Cultural Treasures by the Ford Foundation last year and had 75,000 visitors in 2019. President Obama appointed Takekawa to the National Museum and Library Services Board in 2016.
Locally, Takekawa was appointed by the governor to serve as Washington State Arts Commissioner (2009–2015). She also served on the Board of the Washington Courts Historical Society and Downtown Seattle Association. Within the neighborhood, Takekawa serves on the Board of the International District Emergency Center (IDEC), founded by the late Donnie Chin. After this beloved friend and community leader’s death, Takekawa engaged the community in creating an exhibit about Chin’s life and dedication to the community in the museum’s windows facing Canton Alley directly across from Donnie Chin’s family’s Sun May gift shop.
Takekawa is passionate about the commitment to telling stories from the perspective of the Asian Pacific American community. She could have been a professional cellist, a NYC union organizer, a business manager for a construction firm, or an advocate for affordable housing — in fact, she has been all of these things. But for Takekawa, encouraging the Asian Pacific American community to come together to tell their stories from their own perspective, to speak their own truths, is what has threaded through her past work and is like coming home — from her grandmother’s dining table in Minnesota to the CID, the neighborhood her family was displaced from after World War II.
So what’s next for Beth Takekawa? She and her husband, Tony To, are birders. The couple has traveled as far as Paris, Italy, and China to watch birds.
As Beth takes flight from The Wing to chase her next adventures, the current deputy executive director, Cassie Chin, will act as interim executive director, continuing the legacy of community- centered story-sharing.
This article was produced in partnership with 91.3 KBCS. To hear the audio version of this story, visit “Executive Director Beth Takekawa Retires From Wing Luke Museum” webpage on kbcs.fm.
Yuko Kodama is the news director at 91.3 KBCS. She produces stories for KBCS, All Things Considered, National Native News and for Japanese audiences at J-Wave Radio, Zip FM Nagoya, and FM Yokohama.
📸 Featured Image: Beth Takekawa with Senator Patty Murray at a political fundraiser at the late Vera Ing’s home in Mt. Baker. (Photo: Sharon Maeda)
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