The New MOHAI
From a new home at the center of Seattle, the Museum of History & Industry bridges past and present.
By Seattle Mag October 26, 2012
There’s something ironic about a museum devoted to documenting a city’s progress getting booted out of its home in the name of progress.
Then again, the team at Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) understands better than most that civic progress does not happen without demise and demolition.
Housed for the last 60 years in a Montlake building originally designed by Paul Thiry (principal architect of the 1962 World’s Fair), MOHAI has been forced to find a new home for its vast collection of regional artifacts due to the expansion of State Route 520; the Montlake facility will be razed to make room for additional traffic lanes.
This isn’t the first time SR 520 has come crashing through the MOHAI space. In 1962, just 10 years after the museum opened, the path of the then-brand-new floating bridge and highway forced MOHAI to muck up its original design, shuttering the stately southern entrance and improvising a door on the opposite side of the building.
You couldn’t blame museum staff members for wondering what SR 520 has against MOHAI, but instead, they see this year’s move to the former Naval Reserve Armory Building at South Lake Union as a tremendous opportunity (and not just because it’s a chance to get far away from SR 520). Ann Farrington joined MOHAI seven years ago as creative director of new museum design, having previously worked on the Experience Music Project, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Newseum in Washington D.C. She believes MOHAI’s “reinvention” offers a wealth of positives: “the blending of a national historic restoration with a dynamic exhibition space, the opportunity to revisit the unseen richness of the collection and use it to tell the stories of our region, and to bring the history as close to the present as a history museum can hope to achieve.”
Resembling a giant white battleship moored at the southern end of Lake Union, the armory was designed in the late 1930s by another local architect of note, B. Marcus Priteca, known for his elaborate theaters, including the Paramount, the Admiral and the Coliseum (which houses the downtown Banana Republic store), as well as what is now the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center. Built as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project from 1940 to 1942, the armory served as an advanced naval training school during World War II. With its status as an official Seattle historic landmark and its place on the National Register of Historic Places, the building is itself an artifact—one that will now house MOHAI’s thousands of artifacts inside.
The new location is a rock-solid reminder of Seattle history, but it’s also in the thick of Seattle’s exponential growth and innovative industries. “The armory is at the physical and psychic center of the city,” says MOHAI executive director Leonard Garfield, who has been with the museum for 13 years. “A building whose rich history seems to anchor the city’s future growth at South Lake Union.” Standing outside the new MOHAI, visitors can see landmarks of our city’s past (Gas Works Park, the ship canal and the Space Needle among them) along with glimpses of our vibrant future (bustling South Lake Union and Paul Allen’s contemporary take on the streetcar, which pulls up right out front).
Moving MOHAI from the old space to the new could be compared to the environmental process of “daylighting” a creek that has previously been forced to flow through a dark culvert.
When MOHAI throws open the porthole-windowed doors of its new home on December 29, the 50,000-square-foot space—which offers 50 percent more public and exhibit space than the old location—will be shipshape, thanks to extensive renovations. Garfield says the approach was one his organization is familiar with: “Let’s treat it as an artifact and restore it.” Working with Seattle’s LMN Architects and Sellen Construction (and a $60 million project budget), MOHAI returned the building to its Art Deco glory and upgraded it to today’s exacting Platinum LEED standards.
Moving MOHAI from the old space to the new could be compared to the environmental process of “daylighting” a creek that has previously been forced to flow through a dark culvert. Because of a series of additions, the old building—situated in an easily overlooked corner of Montlake—felt more like a labyrinth than a place of learning. “The old space grew like Topsy, beginning with the reorientation of the entry from the front to the back,” Garfield explains. “As spaces were added, the visitor experience became more fragmented. And there was never sufficient room to really tell all the stories or create the dramatic experiences that the armory allows.” In the new building, the collection can breathe again, and so can the visitors. “The armory, by contrast,” says Garfield, “is more centrally organized, with a dramatic atrium…and a series of surrounding galleries that allow visitors to come into more intimate contact with the authentic stories and stuff of the past.”
The atrium (shown above) is truly stunning, with soaring ceilings and acres of windows offering abundant views of Lake Union. Garfield says the windows ensure that visitors are always aware of exactly where they are in the city—conscious of the present while strolling through the past. Farrington adds that the varied pathway through the core exhibits “brings you back out to the atrium as often as possible, to give perspective.” As with MOHAI’s overarching intent, “You can see where you’ve been and where you’re going.”
The result is that Seattle’s history feels alive and well—and front and center, rather than tucked away in a closet. This perspective is echoed in the new space several other tangible ways, including the loosely circular progression of exhibits, which eventually returns you to where you started (and the “Prologue or Epilogue Theater,” in which visitors can choose to watch a film at either the beginning or end of their journey). Farrington says the museum’s organization strategy is “not a timeline, but a series of stories strung like pearls.” The new space reveals how Seattle’s past, present and future hang together all at once, a shining necklace.
WHAT YOU’LL SEE
MOHAI expects about 100,000 people to visit the new space in the first year—80 percent of whom will be seeing the collection for the first time. What will they encounter? Leonard Garfield says the intent is to “show who we are as a community, and how we got to where we are today” by way of artifacts and interactive exhibits revealing pivotal moments in Seattle’s emergence as a city. “Innovation has always been part of Seattle’s DNA, and MOHAI will be telling that story with renewed emphasis,” says Garfield, “but we will also be following the stories of the environment, the community and our place on the world stage, all of which have trajectories from the distant past to tomorrow.” In contrast to the old space, Garfield says, “the big difference will be that we will look at history as a tool for understanding today, and a place where your own experience and perspective becomes part of the experience.”
A visit begins in the atrium, where one of Boeing’s first planes—the B-1 seaplane, whose maiden voyage was over Lake Union in 1919—hangs from the rafters. Also seemingly midflight is Seattle’s first hydroplane, the Slo-mo-shun IV, which in 1950 shattered the world speed record on water.
Representing another Seattle industry that continues to thrive, the giant red “R” from the Rainier Brewing Company (above) is displayed (and lights up at the touch of a button). Also eye-catching are the atrium’s four towers, which present Seattle history in the making, offering audible oral histories; the evolution of Boeing planes; a comparison of Seattle’s self-reinvention at the 1909 AYP expo and 1962 World’s Fair; and a look at Microsoft, gaming and high-tech history. On the outer wall of one tower, a cascade of notable Seattle faces will (if you face a camera positioned inside the tower) include your own, projected digitally, while you’re visiting MOHAI. “We want to reflect the community,” says Garfield, “not tell people what it’s like.”
The surrounding exhibit galleries show how Seattle went from “from wilderness to world city,” through industrial booms and high-tech revolutions, the great fire and the Great Depression. You’ll see evidence of the native peoples who lived here first, the early settlers and the immigrants who toiled in the railroad, fishing and lumber industries. Photos and films capture Seattle’s many audacious engineering projects, including the Denny Regrade (which makes the forthcoming waterfront tunnel look like a cakewalk), and some that never came to fruition (a tunnel under Lake Washington; a monorail to Tacoma).
Seattle’s vast maritime history is gathered in an appropriate fourth-floor space—a room built to mimic the bridge of a ship with small square windows looking across Lake Union. Originally used for naval training, the space now houses nautical artifacts and a periscope offering visitors a 360-degree view of the city.
MOHAI also has a special exhibitions gallery for traveling shows, which first will house Celluloid Seattle (curated by local movie maven Robert Horton), revealing Seattle’s starring and cameo roles in films and television shows, and how the concept of “going to the movies” has evolved here.
WHAT YOU WON’T SEE (YET)
The Center for Innovation will be a brand-new section of MOHAI, funded by a $10 million personal donation by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos—the largest gift the museum has ever received. It is scheduled to open in the fall of 2013 as a prominent feature of the grand atrium.
THE ART OF HISTORY
“Sea to Sky,” a stunning sculpture (not yet installed at press time) by local installation artist John Grade, is a 65-foot-tall wooden spire piercing the north end of the MOHAI atrium. Made from timbers taken from the deconstructed turn-of-the-century schooner Wawona, the sculpture represents the cyclical nature of creation, decay, loss and renewal, and the specific way local history tends to wrap back on itself: Launched in 1897 and built with timber harvested locally, the Wawona transported regional timber to California. Later it served as a fishing vessel, but after the schooner succumbed to a beetle infestation, it was deconstructed and its wood was repurposed locally. The MOHAI spire, which Grade has ornamented with barnacle-like wooden nodules, pokes down through the floor of the armory and into Lake Union (you can see the water through a window in the floor). A kinetic sculpture, it will sway a bit with the water’s movements, and the wood will continue its process of degradation in its new role as historic art.