For the first 60 years of its existence, the Museum of History and Industry was easy to miss. Tucked away in a verdant corner of Montlake, the low-slung building—a display of modernism by architect Paul Thiry, designer of KeyArena—kept to itself. MOHAI was a shy sort, content to stay at home with its toy chest of donated artifacts, almost four million and counting, reliving the story of Seattle’s past: from the sacred land of the First People to a bustling city with its own World’s Fair; a region of fur traders, timbermen, and prospectors, then aerospace engineers, computer scientists, and entrepreneurs—all on the proverbial path to the Klondike.
Museum visitors could meander uninterrupted through the low-tech world of archival photography and dioramas or wander the Hall of Icons and Eye Candy, home to Bobo the gorilla and Lincoln Towing’s pink Toe Truck. Though rich in detail, the exhibits were usually roped off, to be looked at and not touched—thank goodness for the working periscope and its views of Lake Washington. With its low ceilings and dim lighting, MOHAI kept history secure for decades of grade-school class trips. It was, in the nicest sense of the word, stuffy. Even the museum’s executive director, Leonard Garfield, cops to that.
And in 2010, MOHAI teetered dangerously close to extinction.
Occupying a stretch of city-owned land, the museum faced demolition to make way for the coming 520 bridge expansion. The Seattle City Council, the Washington State Department of Transportation, and museum executives have wrangled over appropriate compensation—a multimillion-dollar arrangement still being debated as of October—but one agenda item was settled: In 2012 MOHAI would take over the empty Naval Reserve Armory building on South Lake Union, relieving the city of its obligation to maintain the historic landmark and giving MOHAI a new water-front address in the burgeoning neighborhood. Amazon’s campus is just across the street, and, at last count, no fewer than six cranes loomed on the horizon—a sign of the actual industry and rapidly evolving history MOHAI will showcase in its new space when it officially reopens on December 29.
“History isn’t just nostalgia, or something behind a glass case or in a book,” Garfield said in his empty new armory office. “History is powerful. It’s filled with information about how we can make our lives better—both the mistakes we made and the successes we can celebrate. There are clues there. That’s what the new MOHAI is about: connecting history with the decisions we’re making in our own lives now.”
Under the watchful eye of creative director Ann Farrington, who also helped to launch Seattle’s hands-on Experience Music Project, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and the original Newseum in Virginia, MOHAI has entered the twenty-first century with dozens of computer-based interactive exhibits and video oral histories. One display teaches Chinook jargon, an improvised language Native Americans and European settlers used to barter. Another lets you shop neighborhoods (do you like to live by the mountains or the water?) and yet another takes an informal poll of visitors, tallying how people ended up here and how they like their coffee.
The modern and classic blend elegantly in the renovated armory, an art deco building with high ceilings and refinished hardwood floors. Visitors enter a cavernous atrium where a 64-foot wooden spire, sculpted from salvaged planks of a century-old schooner by Seattle artist John Grade, stands sentry. At the time of my tour, four three-story towers were under construction, slated to house interactive displays and a study of the region’s most recent past, from Boeing to Microsoft to the gaming industry. And lest we forget our commitment to beer, the Rainier “R” sign lights up the main atrium.
But that’s not the first thing you notice when you enter the museum. The biggest change is the lighting: Big, beautiful windows let all the sun Seattle can muster shine into the main hall, while portholes—and the ever-ready periscope—offer views of Lake Union. The permanent exhibit lines the north and east ends of the museum, so as you examine the model ships behind glass, you can see an actual historic tugboat out the window. “Most museums are inside a black box, but what’s outside is also part of our story,” Farrington said as she walked me through the unfinished space. To protect the oldest artifacts from fading and exposure, including a delicate “petticoat American flag” made of scraps of cloth stitched by some of Seattle’s earliest pioneers, curators have installed motion-activated smart glass—resembling the tinted windows of a -Cadillac Escalade—that brightens when viewers get close to reveal what’s beneath. It’s another small but significant update at the museum.
Also significant, but not so small: A $10 million Center for Innovation funded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos will open within the building in September 2013, though details are still in the works. In the meantime, MOHAI has announced a series of exhibits on Seattle’s celluloid history (December 29–September 8), curated by local film critic Robert Horton, and a Contemporary History of Seattle’s Floating Homes (June 15–November 3, 2013) complete with a scale model of a houseboat. The hope is to make MOHAI a nationally recognized museum—and showcase the pioneer spirit of Seattle. “As we look to the future, I think the challenge is to keep that open, problem-solving, entrepreneurial spirit alive,” Garfield said. “We have the solutions to our own problems and we can make things happen.”