How do you tell a painful story of detention?

With the honesty of the people who lived through the experience.  

The Wing Luke Museum and Inscape Arts came to Buoyant to convey the full arc of the immigration process in Seattle’s version of Ellis Island.

As Seattle’s central point of immigration from 1932 to 2004, the United States Immigration Station & Assay Office was a site of entry and departure, reunion and breakup, celebration and disappointment, life and death. In 2009, INS Partners transformed the building into a creative maker space, now called Inscape Arts. The building needed to be grounded in its history, yet also be free to express the burgeoning creativity that it now houses.

Our challenge was to find the appropriate level of honesty — to tell an authentic story that balanced the truly joyful experiences with heart-breaking injustices.

winning formula


  • The Wing Luke had an amazing repository of personal histories from immigrants. We developed “Voices of the Immigration Station” and gave the building a heart in history by selecting a handful of individuals to represent the spectrum of experiences at the INS Building. These key individuals helped shape the different stories that start in the lobby and course through the five floors of the building.

Exhibit Design

  • We developed these immigrant stories with a carefully considered balance of text, photos, and commissioned art.
  • As a permanent installation in a working creative space, the materials needed to stand up to various levels of wear: being touched, potentially being banged into when tenants move in or out of the building, and very bright sunlight. Because there was no long-term maintenance or technology budget, we made the placards out of oversized aluminium sheets, which not only contrasted nicely with the building’s orange tiles but were easy to read and highly visible.
  • We extended our homage to the building’s 1930s design by using the Futura typeface (also created in the 1930s) and a Jan Tschichold-inspired grid for all the signage, as well as  selecting lobby furniture with a modern take on interiors of the era.


At the opening ceremony of the installation, many people came up to me and Cassie Chinn, curator of The Wing Luke, and personally thanked us for creating the exhibition — for telling their story, and for helping others to never forget the hardship that so many immigrants encountered and continue to experience.

The Wing Luke includes the installation on their tours of the International District, and the lobby is now a meeting space within the building. Tenants feel greater appreciation for the space, with a deeper understanding of its past use.

The exhibit can be viewed by contacting The Wing Luke Museum or Inscape Arts.

notable quote

“The building has a bit of an eerie feel to it, to say the least. But today, the Inscape building is full of life and good energy—there are artists roaming the building, creating dreamlike spaces out of rooms that were once a living nightmare for the people who were held there. Ultimately, the center is a place for reflection through art. It is a place for us to remember our history and commit to the continued effort to strengthen our community.” Immigrant and Refugee Voices Memorialized at Former Detention Center, International Examiner


Cassie Chinn, Curator, The Wing Luke Museum

Dori Cahn, Historian, The Wing Luke Museum

Mike Donnelly, Building Manager, Inscape Arts

Matthew Bissen and Stacey Fischer, Installation Photographers