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A Museum Mission

Story by
Nancy Joseph
Racquel West standing in front of exhibit at the new Burke Museum

“What we call ‘objects’ in the [Burke] collection aren’t just objects,” says Racquel West, above. “They are kin and they hold knowledge." Media credit: Corinne Thrash

 

On her twenty-first birthday, UW senior Racquel West spent the afternoon visiting museums. It was free admission day in Tacoma, Washington and she couldn’t resist.

“I went to all the museums in Tacoma,” laughs West. “I’ve always been interested in museums and knowledge-sharing. I was really excited to spend my birthday that way.”

It’s not as if West is deprived of museums the rest of the year. Since March she has served as assistant outreach coordinator for the Burke Museum's Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Native Art, working about 20 hours a week. Twice a month she travels to the Port Madison Indian Reservation to volunteer and conduct research in the archives of the Suquamish Museum.

Racquel West during a childhood visit to a museum, listening to the audio guide.

“I’ve always been interested in museums and knowledge-sharing," says Racquel West, shown here at age six listening to an audio guide at Versailles.  Media credit: Courtesy of Racquel West

West has loved museums since childhood, but she hadn’t considered working at a museum until studying abroad in New Zealand through a UW Department of American Indian Studies program. The program focused on learning from and with the Maori people, indigenous to New Zealand. The class included museum visits and discussions of how the Maori have been misrepresented in museum settings. 

“That was a really big wake-up call,” says West. “We discussed that museums and other institutions of knowledge hold so much power. I’d always believed everything I read in museums, but I learned that you should critique everything. I wasn’t raised to do that, and I think most people are not. The study abroad experience really sparked my interest in the institutional responsibility of museums.”

Back on campus, West delved deeper into the issue as a double major in geography and history. She was intrigued by geography first, drawn to the discipline’s focus on the ways we move through the world. She added history soon after, finding synergy between the two fields.

I’d always believed everything I read in museums, but I learned that you should critique everything. I wasn’t raised to do that, and I think most people are not.

“I tell people that I study space and time, but I’m not a physicist,’” West says. “It makes people laugh, but it’s also very much how I see my work. If you’re talking about a place, you’re need to understand the time to have a context. Time influences how we look at a space.”

West completed a history honors thesis last year, focusing on the Suquamish Museum, a museum created and run by the Suquamish tribe. “The Suquamish Museum and tribal museums in general hold the power of representing themselves, which is really different than other museums,” says West. “I was interested in learning more about what that looks like. Since I was writing a history paper, I focused on the history of the museum and how it has affected the reservation.”

Since finishing that thesis, West has continued volunteering at the Suquamish Museum, helping to organize and digitize the archives. She credits her thesis adviser, history professor Dr. Joshua Reid, with instilling in her the importance of that commitment.

Racquel West organizing a drawer of artifacts in a storage area at the Burke.

Racquel West organizes a drawer of artifacts in a storage area at the Burke Museum. Media credit: Corinne Thrash

“Something I’ve learned in my classes with Dr. Reid is that you don’t go into a space, do a project with someone, and then leave,” West explains. “Because then you are using that community and that knowledge for your own benefit and not giving anything in return. As long as I’m in the area, I’ll continue volunteering.”

That ongoing involvement is particularly impressive given West’s other responsibilities. She volunteered for the UW Pipeline Project’s storytelling project with children in Neah Bay, Washington. She has been an officer for First Nations @ UW, a campus student organization. She has performed in a musical for the UW’s Undergraduate Theater Society, is the editor-in-chief of the undergraduate geography journal Plenum, and she is now gearing up for her geography honors thesis.

And then there’s her job at the Burke Museum.

In the Bill Holm Center, West’s duties range from administrative tasks to helping organize objects in the collection. The Center offers support to Native artists, visiting researchers, and others interested in access to the Burke’s culture collection.

Racquel West framed by shelves of storage at the Burke Museum.

"...[A] lot of the work of the Bill Holm Center is about making the collections accessible to those whose relations are in the collections," says Racquel West. "In this way, the museum is held accountable to the communities it represents.” Media credit: Corinne Thrash

“What we call ‘objects’ in the collection aren’t just objects,” West says. “They are kin and they hold knowledge. So a lot of the work of the Bill Holm Center is about making the collections accessible to those whose relations are in the collections. In this way, the museum is held accountable to the communities it represents.”

West considers herself fortunate to be paid for doing work that she loves, which helps ease her financial burden as a student. Undergraduate scholarships have also had an impact. She has received a McNair Scholarship, a Mary Gates Research Award, and has twice received the Chester William Fritz Scholarship. 

“My parents, who met at the UW, told me in fifth grade that they would pay for my living expenses while I was in college but that I would be responsible for tuition,” West says. “They wanted me to know the weight of what dropping classes looked like, since my mother put herself through college and my dad also did a lot to support himself in college. Since fifth grade I’ve been saving up, but that only goes so far. Having scholarships has eased my mind and given me the ability to focus on my academic work.”

West may be seeking more scholarships in the future, since she hopes to pursue a doctoral degree. Her long-term goal is to help museums continue to improve.

“Over the past 40 years there’s been a big shift in museums,” says West. “There’s been a realization that things need to change. I want to continue to be a part of that.”