Museology Master of Arts Program

January 6, 2017

Making Heritage Valuable – Chieko Phillips (Alumni Spotlight)


Chieko Phillips Portrait“How do you take something as complicated and multifaceted as a history of a people, a history of African Americans, and try and condense that down into exhibit narratives or public programs?,” Chieko Phillips asks me, with a curiosity and intensity that tells me she’s just as excited about pursuing this question as she ever was.  Her work in the museum field reflects her ability to share history in a way that you can relate to.

Chieko graduated from the Museology program in 2011. From the time she was a student, she has been active in the Seattle’s arts and heritage scene. “I feel like I have been all over the place, but I feel like I’m a really good generalist. I like to think that I’m known as someone who will help you get things done.” Her work has many dimensions: she’s been involved in exhibits, public programs, community outreach, and administration; she’s worked with museums, nonprofits, and community projects; and she’s done exhibits ranging from fine arts to heritage.

Chieko Phillips - Exhibit Opening

Chieko at the entrance of her exhibit “Pitch Black” at NAAM

Since before she joined the Museology program, she had a passion for public history –  “it’s always been a driving force behind my career, even when I interviewed for my first internship at NAAM [the Northwest African American Museum].” She landed  that curatorial internship at NAAM as a student, working with fellow alum Brian Carter. The internship allowed her to follow her interests in African American history and its representation in museums. She continued her pursuit after being hired to stay at NAAM as an Administrative Assistant, working her way up to Exhibitions Manager and eventually Community Engagement Manager. Chieko’s work during her 5 years at NAAM was monumental, and included projects such as coordinating the  first comprehensive exhibit about black baseball in Washington State.

Chieko also created opportunities for herself in her young career, working frequently with her Museology peers on her projects. She worked with fellow alum Tasia Endo on an advisory board for Art Behind Barbed Wire, an exhibit for the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington.  As students, Chieko and 5 of her classmates – Marina Hernandez, Megan Churchwell, Mercy Trent, Nadia G Arambula, and Renae Youngs – developed a travelling exhibit for the Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Project after finding out about the initiative from Ron Chew, former director of the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience.

Chieko introducing Sassy Black at Photographic Center Northwest

Chieko introducing Sassy Black at Photographic Center Northwest

“I get inspired when there’s a person or a group of people who have a vision, but don’t necessarily know how to share it,” she said. “And I feel like the tenets of museum practice are about sharing and communicating.” Chieko has made a name for herself helping to tell those stories in her exhibits. After leaving NAAM, she accepted a job with Photographic Center Northwest, coordinating their gallery exhibits and related public programs. While she enjoyed the challenge of expanding her exhibit experience into the realm of fine art, she missed telling the stories about heritage.

To keep her passion for public history alive, she became the Executive Director for BlackPast.org, a nonprofit dedicated to making the African American history accessible in informal places. “I put a lot of everything that I learned – training that started off with museology – into practice.” She has often drawn on the concepts and skills she learned as a Museology student, from taking a visitor-centered approach to exhibit design, to knowing how to create an operating budget. But being director gave her the opportunity to pull together these various skills. She loved exercising  “the muscle of directing – a whole thing… To be in this position where anything is possible if I work hard enough. If you see it and you have the dream, you don’t have to pitch it to anyone – just do it.” She said this opportunity was a highlight of her career so far.

But it wasn’t a stopping point for her. Chieko was excited to move onto the next stage of her career, one where she gets to think about the field more broadly. In September she was hired at 4Culture, supporting the heritage funding program for King County. “I’ve gotten back to this place where now I’m thinking about the field again, and how I can have an impact. Not just on one institution, but on many, and making sure [the field] continues to be valued how I think it should be valued.”

Although Chieko graduated only 5 years ago, she has contributed greatly to Seattle’s museum community with her passion for heritage. “Since I graduated I’ve been trying to figure out how I can have the most impact, or how I can have impact in places that are the most valuable to me. And I’m still on that search.”

-Dylan High, Museology Student Experience Coordinator