I went to Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry ready to hate it. I figured it would be a bunch of we’re-Seattle-and-ain’t-we-great displays. What’s in it for a Tacoman?
A lot, it turns out.
For 60 years, MOHAI was in a virtually undisclosed location in Seattle’s 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 doesn’t dwell on the minute details of Seattle’s 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. It’s a soaring space with Lincoln Towing’s iconic pink “toe” truck, a U.S. Mail plane, a Rainier Brewing Company neon “R,” and the hydroplane Slo-mo-shun IV.
There’s 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. It’s 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, MOHAI’s 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, it’s more about history, Garfield said. He acknowledges it’s 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 state’s 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 operator’s spaceman-like silver suit. It was a leftover from the 1962 World’s 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. MOHAI’s 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 submarine’s periscope allows 360-degree views of the area.
There’s 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. It’s 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 I’ve never heard of.
I made a mental note to look on Netflix for a 1974 John Wayne cop movie, “McQ,” and a so-bad-it’s-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 Tacoma’s Thea Foss but set in a city called Secoma. The exhibit displays clips of filmed-in-Tacoma but set-in-Seattle movies such as 1992’s “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” and 1999’s “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.
Who knew Tacoma had traffic jams at 7:30 in the morning? Certainly not me. I keep a reporter’s hours. My editor is lucky if I roll in to the newsroom by noon. So I wasn’t expecting backed-up intersections that got me to the Sounder train station at Freighthouse Square with just a few minutes to spare.
It was all part of an experiment to get from Tacoma to Seattle’s MOHAI at Lake Union using public transportation. The only driving I did was from my home in Tacoma’s North End to the Tacoma Dome Station.
Fortunately, the train was still in the station when I arrived. Unfortunately, fare is required before boarding, an electronic reader board informed me. As I was about to insert my credit card in the machine, the train pulled away at 8 a.m. sharp. I was expecting an Amtrak-style disregard for punctuality, but got Japanese bullet train efficiency.
That was the last northbound train of the morning. Undeterred, I headed down to the bus station and queued up for the Sound Transit express (574) to the airport.
“How much to SeaTac?” I asked the man in front of me. “$2.50,” he replied. “$3.50,” the bus driver said when I inadvertently shorted him. Never trust your fellow passengers.
The bus stops at the SeaTac Central Link station before reaching the airport. It’s the southern end of the 14-mile line. Reaching the station requires a long slog up stairs (or a quick elevator). An interesting art piece rotated inside the pedestrian overpass. Those 14 miles took more than 35 minutes (and $2.75) to deliver me to Westlake Station in downtown Seattle. But the train wasn’t crowded and I saw parts of Seattle the I-5 driver misses.
“Where do I find the Seattle Streetcar?” I asked a security guard when I got to the station. “I dunno,” he replied and directed me to an information counter. Never trust security guards.
I found the streetcar station just on the other side of Westlake. As I was about to pay my $2.50, a fellow passenger said, “I don’t trust those machines. I pay on board.” She was headed to MOHAI as well, it turns out.
It was a short ride and then a quick few steps to the museum.
For the return trip, I caught a ride to downtown Seattle with a friend. I walked to King Street station to catch the Sounder, stopping at Pike Place Market and other spots along the way.
This time, I was determined not to miss the train, and $4.75 got me a comfortable seat. As we stopped at Tukwila, Kent and other stations, we picked up more and more aerospace employees until it seemed like a rail-based Boeing convention.Like just about any American commuter train, the Sounder gives a tour of backyards. There isn’t much else to see.
The AAA estimates it costs an average of 60 cents per mile to operate a car, based on fuel, maintenance, insurance and depreciation. By that estimate, it would cost me $36 for the trip to Seattle. My cost was $13.50, and I let the government do the driving.Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/getout