Rewarded are curious travelers who know that to truly appreciate a place, one has to understand its history. They must know where it’s going, and where it’s been. The soul of a place lies as much in its context as it does its current incarnation.
During a headline-grabbing, 90-million-dollar reincarnation in early 2013, Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) placed itself at the geographical center of the city, while positioning itself at the intersection of Seattle’s origin and its future. Filled with more than four million historic artifacts and state-of-the art, interactive exhibits, the museum tells the story of its city—a place defined by innovation, geography and diversity with a seemingly perpetual bright future.
Displaced, fittingly, by the city’s plans to build a speedy new highway, the museum took up roost in the bustling South Lake Union neighborhood in the renovated Naval Reserve Armory. Visually, the building is the perfect home for a museum that tells the story of Seattle: though utilitarian by design, the armory is first and foremost beautiful.
Partially built on piers above the waters of Lake Union, when you first step inside, the first emotion it evokes is wonder: its grand atrium, which soars four stories tall, is home to a pastiche of Seattle iconography. The 1919 Boeing B-1 Seaplane, which wears a patina earned through years of mail flights between the US and Canada, hangs above. Nearby, you’ll find another craft that’s blurred the lines between water and air: Slo-Mo-Shun IV, the hydroplane which won the 1950 Gold Cup and helped kick start Seattle’s Seafair festival. As you gaze upward, the 12-foot tall neon “R” sign (a keepsake from the region’s beloved Rainier Beer) acts as proxy for the city’s fair-weather backdrop: the sky-scraping Mount Rainier that dwarfs the city when the sun shines. In concert, it’s all a bit larger than life.
Erected in 1942 and added to the national register of historic landmarks in 2009, the 50,000 square-foot Armory was built by architect B. Marcus Priteca, who is to thank for a handful of celebrated theatres and landmarks throughout the region. Used as an advanced naval training facility during World War II, the Armory speaks to Seattle’s inextricable existence with its waterways and skies.
In fact, though you’ll find world-class neighbors, like Amazon and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in South Lake Union, it was first home to the city’s inaugural mills, boat builders, railroad and even Boeing’s original workshop. Though Lake Union is only six miles in circumference, it’s often said that the lake is shallow, but boasts a deep history.
Dating back to pre-settlement Native cultures, when canoes linked the region’s mountains and islands by turning its rivers and lakes into passageways, Seattle has always been oriented to the water. Its waterways are trade routes, crafted, by generations of civil engineers, to maintain valuable transportation through the area’s densely wooded, hilly landscape. Take the Lake Washington Ship Canal as example: this impressive engineering treasure links fresh water to salt water through the center of the city and compensates for a 20-foot difference in water level with an advanced system of locks. Began in 1911 and completed in 1934, this waterway still gives passage to vessels of all sizes today. Details about how the city’s waterways have played a starring role in its development are enumerated in MOHAI’s exhibit, The True Northwest: Seattle’s Journey.
Just as defining as Seattle’s water heritage is its aviation ancestry. Again, the city’s illustrious aviation story began at the South end of Lake Union. In 1916 the very first commercial Boeing seaplane, Bluebill, took flight—flown by Bill Boeing himself. At the time a modern marvel, this wooden, two-seater plane’s flight changed history. Today, nearly 100 years later, you can still watch seaplanes take off and land on the lake—in fact, the rooftop deck of the MOHAI offers a front row seat of this quintessentially Northwest scene.
But the city’s history is comprised of far more than just air and water. To wit, fire too played an integral part in the city’s journey. In 1889 the city nearly burned to the ground after a glue pot caught fire. Inside MOHAI’s interactive exhibit “Fire Theater,” the Great Seattle Fire is brought to life through Gilbert and Sullivan-style musical theater. This affecting exhibit is particularly relevant for two reasons. First, it’s one of the museum’s more than 35 interactive components, which help the space engage modern museumgoers. Secondly, it is a shining example of an evergreen theme in the city’s history: reinvention.
After the fire nearly consumed the city, Seattle rebuilt itself from the embers and thrived throughout the 1890s, amidst a period of expansion driven in huge part by the Yukon Gold Rush. Though this specific instance of reinvention is easy to mark, the young city—the average age of Seattle’s 600,000 residents is just 36—has invention and reinvention at its core.
Throughout the museum you can learn about the many ways that curiosity, innovation and industrious mettle have shaped and reshaped the region throughout the years. Highlights include: the Petticoat Flag, which was sewn from available materials—baby blankets, petticoats and the like—for soldiers during the 1850 Battle of Seattle, and the Model T Ford, which powered Seattle’s 1907 American Messenger Company. Galleries also tell the stories of the Space Needle, which quickly became the city’s icon as word of it spread after the 1962 World’s Fair, and the local origins of companies like Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks and even Amazon, which has changed the face of global commerce over the past decade. Exhibits chronicle the city’s pioneering spirit as it takes other shapes: the illegal distilleries that flourished in the region during Washington’s era of Prohibition are celebrated, as well as the wild popularity of grunge music in the 90’s. Even the exhibit on the 1999 protests at Seattle’s World Trade Organization gives record of a revolutionary nature that has shaped the city and still pulses through it today.
Perhaps that’s how MOHAI reflects the tone of Seattle so well—both are decidedly forward thinking. The museum’s interactive exhibits and installations do well to drive home that this is a modern museum. With green screens, touch screens and cutting-edge technology woven throughout the museum’s narrative, MOHAI works to engage a broad audience. The interactive quiz “Neighborhoods,” plays on your waxing affinity for the city and probes you for insights to help determine which local ‘hood would best suit you. Likewise, the exhibit “Hammering Out History,” chronicles the building of the Washington State railroad in the end of the 19th century and allows visitors to hit railroad spikes to urge the story along.
Even beyond the experience at the Armory, the history organization is committed to encouraging civic literacy and reaches into the community to fuel an ongoing discussion about history and identity. For the past three years film has been a medium for communication and more than 140 films have been produced as part of the museum’s “History is ______” Film Competition, which encourages filmmakers of all ages to answer that prompt in their own way through a short film. As MOHAI’s Jackie Durbin said of the pieces created for the competition by everyone, from 4th grade students to university film professors, “It really shows how first and foremost, history is personal.”
Always looking to the future, MOHAI understands that a personal connection with history should be encouraged in today’s youth, and they take great care to engage younger visitors. Everyday the museum also extends “Exploration Packs” to help families with children aged three to seven navigate the collections. These packs are full of hands-on games and accessories, like a telescope, map and compass, which help position the child as an early explorer, discovering the museum.
Just like the city that surrounds it, MOHAI is always evolving. At any given time, only two percent of the organization’s massive collection is on display at the museum. Exhibits are always being curated in new, thought-provoking ways. MOHAI’s partnership with the Smithsonian also assures that world-class shows relevant to Seattle rotate through its galleries, as well.
As Durbin explains, “MOHAI presents history as a tool for understanding our past so that the present makes sense and the future can be shaped with the knowledge of who we are and where we are going.”
Maybe nothing is more symbolic of that perspective than the sculpture by Seattle artist John Grade that anchors the museum’s atrium. Built with wood salvaged from an 1897 Wawona schooner that sailed Seattle’s lakes, this art installation reaches through the roof of the museum, bisecting its atrium with its arresting presence. Made possible by innovation, inspired by nature, stretching from the water to the sky—like MOHAI itself, the sculpture nudges that today is just one point on a timeline. It hints that we’re connected to the past and to the future, and roots us in an undeniable sense of place.