Always ready and waiting for new patrons, museums share their eclectic collections of recorded history on a variety of objects, events and people in very unique ways. But believe it or not, museums have their own history too.
Quite by accident, I recently discovered one such institution—a favorite from my youth—had pulled up stakes and moved to a new local. And all I did was ask someone for the nearest coffee place…
A few years back, Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry—MOHAI—traded its view of Lake Washington and the recently expanded Evergreen Point Floating Bridge for a view of the Space Needle from the edge of Lake Union. They just needed to dust a few cobwebs off an old but very museum-sized facility.
Kudos to the city for repurposing the historic Naval Reserve Armory building! MOHAI’s new home. This made me wonder about the history of the museum itself. When did it first open its doors? Will its contents spark a memory or two for me? Aside from the new digs (and a coffee shop—with its own entrance ☕️), what else will be new news for me?
Waiting for a friend’s meeting to end, I had a few hours to wander around the area. Desiring to satisfy my curiosity, I pushed off my caffeine fix and walked through the museum’s doors.
A life-altering letter
Handing me my ticket and map, the museum employee suggested I begin my self-guided tour just behind the ginormous photo of Mount Rainier on the second floor. An excellent suggestion, because it provided a chronological starting point with the first people who called this area “home.”
Coveted for its abundance of natural resources, this place attracted explorers, trappers, miners and loggers, ultimately attracting farmers, government—and barons of industry. Many natives and newcomers developed friendly relationships, but it did not take long for the steady arrival of outside people seeking land for themselves to challenge any good will between tribes and settlers.
Studying the photos, artifacts and reenactment videos, I found myself taking a refresher course in my own town’s local history.
Chief Seattle, a prominent leader of his tribe, encouraged his people and other local tribes to sign a treaty penned by those would become the city’s civic leaders. Speaking up for environmental and tribal rights, he nevertheless endorsed the documents that authorized relocation of native tribes to reservations—land set aside for them by the American government.
The US purchased the more desirable land from the tribes. The chief lived out his days on a reservation, some distance from his original home. Part of me wondered why Chief Seattle focused on persuading tribes to accept the treaty rather than fight to keep what was already theirs.
But I think he foresaw that the new US government—friendly now, but with plenty of military and financial resources—would continue to push for the land they wanted, eventually at any cost. He led by example and signed the treaty, peaceably taking the high road. A somber situation for the tribes. A very humbling and life-altering event for all.
A musical fire
A re-enactment of a famous event is one way to make the pages of history come alive. Like with a musical. In this case, one starring inanimate objects: a typewriter, a doll, a glue pot…
The Great Seattle Fire of 1889 occurred Thursday, June 6 of that year, taking down the entire business district, burning all the way to the waterfront.
I remember seeing the glue pot—the catalyst of the great fire—during my very first visit to MOHAI, circa my first grade year. But this lovely little fire starter came to life in front of me today in a whole new way when I entered The Great Seattle Fire Theater.
Singing its heart out, the glue pot shared its side of the story. Other objects joined in, performing for seven minutes, until their individual memories of this hot news event were made known. Talk about seeing things from another point of view! I actually clapped.
A hometown photographer
Making my way through the very lively, colorful and interactive museum displays, I was entertained by memory triggers—anything that took me back to a classroom, a famous headline or an I-remember! moment. But when I happened upon the temporary exhibit featuring a local photographer, I encountered something very new to me: Seattle on the Spot—the photographs of Al Smith.
Entering the exhibit’s rooms, I was transported in time to around the 1950s, and the African-American community living and working in the Puget Sound region back then.
I’d not heard of Al Smith before, but I quickly came to appreciate his skills—his eye for a great photo—capturing special occasions and everyday life in a way that made me feel drawn in, like I was there. An amazing photographic journal of his travels and daily encounters. On display until June 17, I’m very glad I caught his work.
An infectious future
Leaving the Al Smith exhibit, history picked up speed for me. From tokens and headlines showcasing the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, to the civil rights and human rights movements taking place around the region, to beginnings of today’s PC tech—even nods to local companies that became world famous. I was in awe of it all.
How will today’s headlines find their way into MOHAI’s future displays? What current issues, disasters, laws and discoveries will make such marks on our society as to receive a place inside these walls?
Everyday people going about their lives, careers and plans, stumbling upon—or running purposely toward—such moments in time. Who will take the high road for peace, or protest for justice? Who will be tenacious enough to create new cures, or efficiencies? Who will showcase art in a whole new way?
Only our future voters, researchers, leaders and dreamers can say. I wonder—what will MOHAI have to say about them? J 🎟