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Newly renovated Asian Art Museum reopens in Seattle's Volunteer Park

The Asian Art Museum in Seattle’s Volunteer Park will reopen its doors this weekend after being closed for three years for a $56 million renovation. There’s a new glass-walled section that overlooks the park and the way the museum collections are being displayed is completely different than in the past.

Among the items in one gallery are an early 20th century Japanese Kimono, a Chinese jade comb from the eighth century and Persian gold earrings from the 12th century. Foong Ping, curator of Chinese art for the museum, says rather than arranging rooms by place or eras they are organized around themes.

“For example, the title of this gallery is ‘We Are What We Wear,’” she said during a tour.

Curator of Japanese and Korean art Xiaojin Wu added that the idea is to get people thinking about their own clothing and accessories, and what that says about their identity.

“So even if they don’t know much about Asian art and Asian culture, by presenting collections thematically they can find common interests or ideas,” Xiaojin Wu said.

And there are other ways the redone museum differs from its previous incarnation. In the ceramics room, for example, you don’t see any labels identifying the pieces. Foong Ping says that’s by design.  

“I want somebody simply to look at the color, that’s it," she said.

The items have been grouped by color to make that easy to do. And, if you want to learn about the pieces, you can use the touch screens placed nearby.

Viewing the building from the outside, the most noticeable change is the floor-to-ceiling glass room called the park lobby. A standing marble Buddha, which dates to the early seventh century, is on a blue pedestal in the space. Foong Ping says there will be light on him so that people outside can see him.

“And he will shine forth at night so if you are walking up from the bus, you can see him as you walk up the path,” she said.

The Buddha is one of the museum's most prized possessions, but has been in deep storage for years. The curators said that's because he is so heavy, a special pedestal was needed to accommodate him. Now, they say, he is in a sturdy place that is earthquake-proof like the rest of the building.

The grand opening this weekend, Feb. 8-9, is sold out. The museum's regular hours will begin Wednesday, Feb. 12.

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Foong Ping and Xiaojin Wu.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.