Preserving region’s history allows appreciation for current times

CONTRIBUTING WRITERJanuary 13, 2013 

In the museum business, the word “industry” is usually coupled with the word “science,” not surprisingly because the former depends so much on the latter.

In Seattle, however, the combination is “industry” and “history,” as in the Museum of History and Industry, which is understandable given that the history of the region (and we’ll throw Tacoma in that definition) is really the history of industry.

We can talk all we like about the natural glories of the Northwest as a reason to live here.

Those attracted the earliest settlers and explorers (of the American and European variety) too – although their interest was how to translate those natural glories such as fish and timber into money.

The Northwest has long had a green economy, although perhaps not in the contemporary use of that term.

Build an economy they did, with fish and timber and provisioning the Klondike-bound, later with shipbuilding and aircraft, later still with computer software, designer coffee and online retailing.

So if you’re going to truly tell the “history” part of the region’s saga, you’d better spend considerable time on the “industry” part.

Which the new MOHAI does quite nicely. The museum recently opened in a former Naval Reserve armory at the south end of Lake Union. Its prior building wasn’t terrible, certainly not “this place needs a wrecking ball” awful, but it was awkwardly located.

With the 520 expansion project delivering the prospect of a wrecking ball to MOHAI, the museum needed a new home. The availability of the armory gives MOHAI a highly visible waterfront location at the hub of activity, next to another cultural destination, the Center for Wooden Boats.

Inside are some of familiar artifacts – the red-neon sign that once graced the Rainier brewery, the B-1 float plane that, in 1919, was Boeing’s first commercial aircraft.

Ringing the four-story atrium are smaller galleries telling chapters of the Seattle historical-industrial story, including shipbuilding, the coming of the railroad, aircraft and Microsoft.

It’s an informative and entertainingly told story, in a terrific setting, and more will be coming with a Jeff Bezos-financed Center for Innovation.

In fact, the only significant complaint one can come up with is one not directly associated with the museum itself, and one over which it has little control: the frequent souvenirs left by the numerous Canada geese patrolling the grounds. There is a way to solve the problem and create another community attraction at the same time, although Seattle will never go for it: The Great Canada Goose Barbecue Festival.

So how does Tacoma, whose own history is every bit as industry-intensive as Seattle’s, do in preserving and presenting that tale?

Spotty and scattered. Tacoma has an array and concentration of great museums. But art is a separate field, and glass and cars, as worthy as the institutions displaying them are, were never significant industries to this town.

The Washington State History Museum’s permanent exhibits touch on several industries important to regional history (the Puget Sound Model Railroad Engineers Club’s layout by itself is most of Tacoma’s industrial history in miniature). The Foss Waterway Seaport plans to unveil much-expanded exhibit space on Tacoma’s maritime industrial heritage.

Camp 6’s exhibit at Point Defiance on logging and railroads is now gone, but some of the collection wound up at Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad, which this year plans to open a timber industry exhibit at Mineral. (Seattle has seen at least one museum devoted to the industrial side of civic life close as well, in the form of Odyssey Maritime Discovery Center on Pier 66.)

The reasons for museums that are in whole or in part devoted to regional industrial history are the reasons for museums focusing on art, glass, cars, nature or any other field of interest or endeavor. Some of us find them fascinating and will pay money to see them (the very foundation of yet another industry of some consequence – tourism). Beyond that, we need to remind ourselves just what got us to the accomplishments and comforts we enjoy today – or how we wound up in the mess we’re in.

Today’s technological marvels are tomorrow’s antiquities, curiosities, collectibles and artifacts. Applaud the efforts of those museums that not only preserved what our predecessors did for our own contemplation but who are now gathering stuff so that our successors will have a better understanding of the world they inherited – and perhaps an appreciation for what primitive lifestyles people endured back in 2013.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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