Best Move: MOHAI

The Museum of Industry and History settles into its new home, where museumgoers live the history and see the light.

When Museum of History and Industry staff were drawing up projections for how many people would visit the facility in its new, glorious setting on South Lake Union, they settled on 100,000 a year—a fairly ambitious figure, given that only half that many people visited the museum at its old Montlake site. The figure wasn’t ambitious enough.

So far, roughly 150,000 visitors have come to MOHAI at its new site, all the more impressive considering the gauntlet of Mercer Corridor construction they have had to navigate to get there. “And it’s only halfway through the year!” enthuses executive director Leonard Garfield.

It’s no wonder why. First, there’s that location, which makes MOHAI a perfect destination for locals and tourists alike to take in a little scenery and edification at the same time. More important, there’s the way that MOHAI is using the location. The museum, housed in a repurposed naval armory, has been practically obsessive about letting in vistas of the nautical life that surrounds it.

“One of the things we asked the architects to hold to their hearts is that we want people to sense physically where they were,” Garfield explains. And so windows are everywhere. That’s far from the conventional design in museums, which need to guard their contents against the destructive properties of light. To solve that problem, MOHAI used a special glazing on its windows that filters out harmful rays.

“So right under that window,” Garfield says, sitting in the museum’s large first-floor atrium and pointing across from him, “is an original Kenneth Callahan mural.” A renowned Northwest artist, Callahan’s Depression-era mural would not be near a window “in any museum in the world,” Garfield says, except MOHAI.

But MOHAI’s transformation has to do with much more than its setting. The museum’s move, 10 years in the making, was a catalyst for a complete overhaul. Most of the artifacts now on view are either newly acquired or newly displayed, some of them discovered buried in the museum’s collection as staff got ready to pack up.

The exhibits also incorporate new research by museum historian Lorraine McConaghy, who gathered a team of academic advisers and traveled (in some cases across the country) to get relevant information. A simulation of Henry Yesler’s steam-powered lumber mill was created after a visit to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Washington, D.C. A video of the Gold Rush days, taken by none other than Thomas Edison, came from the Library of Congress.

To design the exhibits, MOHAI hired Ann Harrington, who moved to Seattle to help create the Experience Music Project after working on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Newseum, both in D.C. She says she strived “to make the visitor an active participant in history.”

The result is inventive, interactive displays in almost every exhibit. Among the many activities, a visitor can practice speaking Chinook, listen to oral histories, or pretend to be an anti-Communist interrogator during legislative hearings in the 1940s.

Not to be missed is the exhibit on the Great Fire of 1889, which recently won an award from the American Alliance of Museums. Every 15 minutes, the exhibit comes alive as the story is told—or rather sung—as if it were a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, the kind of musical in vogue at the time. Historic pictures flash on the screen while artifacts light up and sound effects kick in at appropriate moments. We hear the clicking of a manual typewriter as a news report is read out. The item blamed for the fire, a glue pot, moans: “Don’t blame me, I’m just a glue pot!”

The museum is not all ancient history. A surprising amount of space is devoted to the recent past and even the present—part of what Garfield says is the museum’s vision of seeing the past as part of a continuum. Currently, a large wing is devoted to the region’s role in movies and TV. That’s a temporary exhibit, eventually to be replaced by one on the region’s culinary history. Proclaims Garfield: “There will be cooking and eating in the galley!”

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

MUSEUM OF HISTORY AND INDUSTRY 860 Terry Ave. N. 324-1126, mohai.org.

 
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