I went to Seattles Museum of History and Industry ready to hate it. I figured it would be a bunch of were-Seattle-and-aint-we-great displays. Whats in it for a Tacoman?
A lot, it turns out.
For 60 years, MOHAI was in a virtually undisclosed location in Seattles Montlake neighborhood on the fringes of the University of Washington. When the Highway 520 reconstruction project was slated to put a fast lane through the building, officials figured it was time to find a new home.
In late December, the new MOHAI opened in the 50,000-square-foot old Naval Reserve Building at Lake Union Park. To be sure, this is a Seattle-centric museum, but it doesnt dwell on the minute details of Seattles history. Rather, it focuses on its grander themes and attributes. All of them will be familiar to any Puget Sounder. Be it industry (Boeing), sports (Seahawks) or culture (Nirvana) all of them have influenced the entire region.
The grand atrium of the building uses the full height of the four-story building. Its a soaring space with Lincoln Towings iconic pink toe truck, a U.S. Mail plane, a Rainier Brewing Company neon R, and the hydroplane Slo-mo-shun IV.
Theres art here, too. The atrium holds a sculpture that has become one with the building. Hull-shaped Wawona by John Grade soars from the water (the MOHAI building is built on pilings over Lake Union) up to the roof. Its carved of reclaimed wood from the 1896 schooner of the same name.
The museum has been a hit with visitors. About 40,000 people attended in January the annual total number of visitors the old location received, said Leonard Garfield, MOHAIs executive director. The new building offers about twice the exhibition space because much of the administration, storage and work areas were moved to a location in Georgetown. Though the museum retains industry in its name, its more about history, Garfield said. He acknowledges its Seattle-centric, but the museum strives to be inclusive of the entire Puget Sound.
When you draw that circle (around central Puget Sound), Seattle is in the center. But Tacoma is part of that history, Garfield said.
The museum is much more interactive than the previous one. Displays engage visitors in a variety of creative ways. One exhibit allows visitors to create their own video game. Another teaches wannabe linguists how to speak Chinook jargon. You can play the part of the accuser or the accused in an exhibit on the Canwell Commission, the states 1948 hearing on un-American activities.
Native peoples are well-represented with maps, language and artifacts. Other displays cover the Oregon Trail (a popular route for pioneers coming west to the region) and the Klondike Gold Rush in which Seattle played a crucial role.
One display holds the control panel of the plexiglass elevator known as the Bubbleator that I remember riding at the Seattle Center as kid in the 1970s plus the operators spaceman-like silver suit. It was a leftover from the 1962 Worlds Fair.
Industry still has its place in the museum from a historical perspective. Shipping, logging, Black Diamond coal mining, railroads, Microsoft, Amazon all are on display.
Museums tend to write dry, academic text panels for exhibitions. MOHAIs are breezy and entertaining. Also entertaining is a fire theater that tells of the great Seattle fire through a Gilbert and Sullivan-style opera recorded for MOHAI.
In the maritime center, windows in the old armory building look out onto Lake Union and historic ships. A submarines periscope allows 360-degree views of the area. Theres natural history here, too. A crushed van is testimony to the destruction from the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake.
Garfield promises exhibits will change periodically if only to preserve artifacts. MOHAI also has temporary installations.
Opening with the new museum is Celluloid Seattle, curated by film critic Robert Horton. Its a lot of space that primarily serves to remind us of all the film and TV shot in our area. But, it is a mind-boggling number of shows both made or set here, some Ive never heard of.
I made a mental note to look on Netflix for a 1974 John Wayne cop movie, McQ, and a so-bad-its-hilarious 1976 film, Scorchy, starring Connie Stevens as an undercover Seattle narc.
Tacoma is well-represented in a way. The 1933 film Tugboat Annie was based on Tacomas Thea Foss but set in a city called Secoma. The exhibit displays clips of filmed-in-Tacoma but set-in-Seattle movies such as 1992s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and 1999s 10 Things I Hate About You.
Then I discovered a green screen and video camera. By pushing a few buttons, a visitor can make a short live movie using various background images. A sasquatch costume would come in handy for the forest scene.
Yes, MOHAI is a bit like attending a party where the host constantly tells you how great he is. But give the guy his due he is pretty cool.
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541