Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry: MOHAI

A Place Comfortable With Boeing, Anarchists and ‘Frasier’

By Edward Rothstein


SEATTLE — Everything connects. The first commercial aircraft made by Boeing, in 1919, hangs from the ceiling. It has no wheels because it regularly landed on Lake Union here after airmail runs to Canada. You can see that lake through a hole in the floor of this building, a former Naval Reserve Armory that was built out over the water in 1942. And above that hole now rises a commissioned 65-foot-high sculpture made by John Grade from the planks of a century-old schooner that also plied Lake Union.

That sculpture reshapes the ship’s worn beams into a mammoth pillar that pushes through the roof like one of the Pacific Northwest’s great cedars — or, perhaps, like a pockmarked, barnacled pile that might have once supported the piers of this city’s port.

There is something elaborately playful about the sense of place evoked in the atrium of the new Museum of History & Industry, which opens here on Saturday. The plane, the sculpture, the allusions: it is difficult to imagine the same objects on display elsewhere having the same effect. The museum is inseparable from its location, and in that sense it is a typical “local” museum. In one sense, too, this is just a new building for the museum of the Historical Society of Seattle and King County, which used to be found in a less traveled neighborhood.

But Mohai, as the museum calls itself, did not just relocate. It is a $90 million transformation of its earlier version. (LMN Architects worked on the landmark armory.) And while it is still a local museum — it has a collection of some four million objects, is supported by private donations and now features some 50,000 square feet of exhibits that chronicle, dissect, criticize and honor Seattle’s past and future — it is also following in the footsteps of other American state and city historical societies that have reinvented themselves in recent decades.

Once such societies were reflections of the social elite who displayed their artifacts as records of achievement. Now they often seem aggressively democratic and demographically self-conscious, with displays that can be as self-critical as they were once celebratory.

The displays are also, of course, no longer static. Here, in exhibits designed by Pacific Studio and Weatherhead Experience Design Group, a touch screen explores the text of the treaties made with the region’s Indians; a playful sound and light show evokes the cataclysmic Seattle fire of 1889; and a two-person video “game” means to demonstrate the injustices of the state’s 1948 hearings on “un-American activities.”

A fascinating temporary exhibition surveys the images of Seattle on film, ranging from “Tugboat Annie” to “The Fabulous Baker Boys” and recent indie projects. It ends with a re-creation of the living room of “Frasier,” along with a sampling of that sitcom’s regional quips. (“The state flower is mildew.”)

The questions being asked in such transformed historical-society museums are also different from those asked in the past: What are the peculiarities of this place? Is there a local temperament and style? Why have certain enterprises flourished, or particular political movements found resonance here? And how has the particular affected the universal, or the local influenced the national?

Here, under the guidance of the museum’s executive director, Leonard Garfield; its creative director, Ann Farrington; and its public historian, Lorraine McConaghy, those themes come to the fore. And despite some flaws, the place and its past emerge with considerable energy. You can’t miss the internal tensions of Seattle’s history, the almost opposing forces that tumultuously run through it.

The museum pays tribute, for example, to the many corporate giants that were born and thrived here, so startlingly out of proportion to the city’s modest population (now just over 600,000). There is a 1920s Model T reconfigured to look like an early truck from United Parcel Service, established as the American Messenger Company in Seattle in 1907. There are galleries devoted to Boeing and Microsoft, a tribute to Amazon, and displays about major breakthroughs in medical treatments that evolved here (including improved dialysis machines and cardiac defibrillators). Somehow the museum even has the hand-painted wooden sign that stood outside the first Starbucks in 1971. And the presence of military institutions during both world wars played a significant role in the evolution of the city and its industries.

But at the same time, the museum celebrates the dropout bohemianism of the Beat scene, the grunge rebellion of Seattle bands and decades of countercultural protest and environmental activism. The recent legalization of marijuana in Washington State is prefigured by other enthusiasms; 99 bottles of beer are mounted on one wall, each locally brewed. In a display about Prohibition, a handmade still is accompanied by a description of the many fires once seen in the nocturnal countryside, a sign of illegal distilleries so productive that the price of whiskey dropped.

It is as if a spirit of individualism had been channeled toward both technological and sociological innovation. This entrepreneurship could be both corporate and countercultural. It could also lead to political radicalism (we learn about the socialist “Wobblies” and the 1919 labor unrest in Seattle) or, in recent memory, to anarchistic protests like those that greeted the 1999 World Trade Organization conference (though we never get enough explanation here to piece together what happened and why).

But how powerful is this tradition in Seattle, compared with other American cities? It’s difficult to tell, but an informative demographic display tells us that now more than 20 percent of Seattle’s population is foreign-born; 40 percent of the city’s households contain one person; and the median age is 36 — all of which seem to suggest currents of unpredictable change.

There are, however, recurring themes outlined in these exhibits. Seattle is a place that seems to have been deliberately manufactured for the sake of manufacturing. It was established at the intersection of forest and sea in the middle of the 19th century by settlers taking the Oregon Trail from the Midwest, who initially forged friendships with local Indian tribes. They called the place New York-Alki, joining the Eastern metropolis with a Chinook word meaning “by and by”: “a little joke,” we are told, “about big dreams.” (“Seattle” came from the name of a friendly Indian chief.)

The earliest drawing of the settlement, from 1856, is here. On one end is a Methodist church with offerings for the spirit; on the other, Madame Damnable’s House with offerings for the flesh. At the center of its 20 buildings is Yesler’s wood mill, outfitted to ship lumber throughout the Pacific region.

The railroad helped build Seattle, and we learn of its construction (in an interactive display too complicated by half) and about Chinese immigrants and the racism they encountered. We learn, too, about the Seattle fire’s effects, seeing melted and fused artifacts, and how the destruction led to an ambition to reshape the city, which grew rapidly in the 1890s during the Yukon Gold Rush.

In 1909 a world’s fair was mounted here, which the designer John Olmsted said rivaled Chicago’s. The landscape architect firm run by John and his brother Frederick (whose stepfather designed Central Park) was hired by the city to design Seattle’s parks. And then we see a series of galleries that to an outsider is astonishing, demonstrating the extent to which nearly everything about Seattle is engineered. Over a period of 50 years, the region’s waterways and lakes were linked to the sea; locks were installed to adjust water level. And in remarkable photographs, we see water used to adjust land level, with water cannons cutting away steep hills in an area downtown that can still rival San Francisco.

Nature here is a powerful force, and Seattle’s history is a series of attempts to tame and master it. The environmental movement became so powerful here not just because of the damage done by industrial domination of nature (beginning in the 1950s, Lake Washington was often considered too filthy to swim in), but also because environmentalism was part of a long tradition of challenging relationships to the landscape.

There are some historical problems in these displays. The first is typical of nearly every American museum: Indian tribes before the white settlers arrived are here imagined living in a pastoral paradise, noble and enlightened, “thriving in this spirit-filled land of forest and shore,” described with formulaic pap that evokes no known culture in human history.

Other historical shortcuts are taken as well. A larger perspective might have illuminated anti-Communist excesses and prevented facile contemporary parallels. And generally the text takes on a “you are there” tone that strains to be engaging to school visitors. There is also an almost teasing reluctance to supply details that a conversation with a curator or a look at the docent scripts readily reveals.

But the spirit of the place is strong, its stance vigorous, its imagination fertile. It is Seattle in an alluring self-portrait.

The Museum of History & Industry opens on Saturday in Seattle;