The new Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), at the southern point of Lake Union, is arguably situated in the heart of Seattle. As a museum dedicated to elucidating this city’s history and social landscape, the new location is symbolic of the value this institution can provide to the surrounding communities. The museum’s site, across the street from the technology offices in South Lake Union and in proximity to the vibrancy of downtown, is also connected to the sea and sky: the Center for Wooden Boats can be found to the east, as seaplanes take off and land from Kenmore Air, the marine airport visible from the café windows.
These connections to technology, travel, and industry are not to be overlooked, especially as the MOHAI celebrates a civic history driven by the bold developments made by local firms like Boeing, Microsoft, and Amazon. The dynamism of the Western pioneer spirit is celebrated by the architecture, exhibitions, and educational aids provided by the museum displays and temporary exhibitions.
When visitors approach the building, they see an armory, originally built in 1942 as the Naval Reserve Building. Although the architecture still calls to mind that of a military institution, the bright new paint and bold signage outside speak to its new identity. The words “Museum of History and Industry” appear high above the front entrance, white text on cheery marine blue. Large triangular canopies resembling sails connect the exterior with the city’s history and immediate surroundings. Upon walking through the front doors, one is greeted by a well-lit lobby decorated with the institution’s list of donors. The display of names pays respect to the generosity of the institution’s supporters without being too intrusive. The low lighting and quiet, blue colors in this display pay tribute to the general humility of Seattle philanthropists.
From this small foyer, visitors move through a second set of doors, and they are immediately greeted by visitors services representatives, though it is difficult to move directly to the ticket counter without stopping to gaze with awe at the tremendous space before you. Just behind the tickets desk, one can see nearly the entire expanse of the museum. There are many objects prominently displayed in this atrium, and it is difficult to look away from the displays in order to purchase tickets for admission.
It seems that the large atrium takes up most of the museum’s square footage, and this surplus of public space impresses visitors and hints at the possibility of a docket complete with a rich variety of future public programs. This is a successful gesture: as soon as visitors enter the space, they experience the dynamism and possibility of the institution, and the building itself speaks to the many places a museum can be.
Unfortunately, as I began the process of obtaining my tickets, I found that the MOHAI does not honor the regular member benefits of American Alliance of Museums institutions. Those who visit museums regularly may rely on memberships with the AAM in order to obtain entrance to exhibitions for free or at a discount. Furthermore, most museums participate in a reciprocal system in which all museum employs are given free entry to other institutions. It is a gesture of professional goodwill and a habit to which I have grown accustomed. When I was denied free entry on both these grounds, it struck me as being a bit peculiar. Why would a museum of MOHAI’s size and importance not choose to participate in sharing one of the standard benefits given to members of the national professional museum advocacy organization? Why would the MOHAI institute an anti-social policy of denying reciprocal admission? Many history museums across the United States are allied with the AAM and provide member benefits, including a number in Washington State, like the Washington State Historical Society in Olympia, the Shoreline Historical Museum, and the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum. Although the MOHAI has been accredited by the AAM, they do not participate in one of its essential programs (the discounted or free admission), and this oversight seems peculiar, as well as alienating, to a core audience—the avid and enthusiastic museum visitor.
Upon moving past the ticket desk, visitors can fully appreciate the open space of the MOHAI atrium and the objects displayed within. Most viewers will be awestruck by a 65-foot tall sculpture by John Grade that has been constructed from readapted planks from a retired schooner, which once sailed Lake Union. Across from this tree-like installation, visitors find a wall of local Seattle icons, including Ivar’s clam mascot on a unicycle, the big, red “R” from the Rainier Brewery, and enlarged versions of historic postcard views. A vintage Boeing airmail plane soars above, taking advantage of the 65-foot high ceilings. One most given days, visitors can be found standing in front of this wall of Seattle artifacts, and they often talk to those around them about the personal childhood memories associated with these objects. Interactivity is also encouraged by a series of cranks adjacent to the corresponding labels. These cranks cause the objects to move, animating the entire display.
The MOHAI atrium may overwhelm some visitors, simply because it is such a huge space with many large objects displayed within. For these guests, a series of four towers provide respite, as well as smaller, focused exhibition spaces. These towers stretch from the entrance hall up to the galleries on the second floor, and these intimate, round spaces provide the opportunity for focused visitor interaction.
After exploring all the exhibits that are available on the ground floor, visitors may want to seek out the permanent exhibitions. However, there is no clear signage directing guests to the galleries upstairs. A large, open-style steel staircase leads upstairs, and although exhibits can be clearly seen from the downstairs atrium, there is no clear signage or invitation telling visitors where to go or what they might find.
Once visitors walk up the stairs (guided in this direction by intuition and curiosity alone), they may not know where to turn. A door to the left seems to invited visitors into an exhibition about Native American heritage and nature, while visitors who look to the right see interesting displays and hear loud, happy music coming from a door in the other direction. This lack of clarity can be troubling, as the upstairs MOHAI exhibits actually function in a chronological order. Visitors who choose to walk to the right might later be troubled to find that they skipped the introductory portion of a logical, historical explanation of the city’s origins, specifically with regards to Seattle’s natural and native beginnings. However, if visitors choose the “correct” route, they are greeted by an introductory panel for the permanent exhibition about the lives of early Native Americans in the Puget Sound area.
Most of the museum’s second level is dedicated to a roughly chronological exploration of Seattle’s history. The twenty-five sections are grouped together as a permanent exhibition titled True Northwest: The Seattle Journey. This exhibit winds around the entire second floor, and in each section, visitors learn about how Seattle transitioned from being a place of native forests and indigenous populations to a global, modern city. The exhibition is paced rather quickly, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the installations and the sheer amount of information available to digest. Each display is unique, with each historical environment given appropriate and individual stylistic treatments. Each area has a different graphic identity, as well as unique wall colors and display methods, so visitors are constantly aware of the changing space and shifting timeline. While the larger design concept for the museum project fell under the aegis of LMN Architects, some individual pieces of the permanent exhibition displays were contracted out to smaller design firms, and this choice feels very obvious when moving around the spaces: many different colors, styles, educational approaches, display methods and graphic elements are used throughout the permanent exhibits, though this variety actually enlivens the installation, and the constant change keeps visitors engaged, alert, and curious.
Once visitors enter the first exhibition space, they find a narrow entry bathed in low lighting, forest green walls, and displays of native Northwest flora. Native American daily life is portrayed in a sensitive exhibition, though its methods feel relatively conservative when compared with the scale and materials of the atrium. The carpet is of the industrial grey variety, and the display cases are laid out in a traditional manner. In the first room, Native American artifacts can be found in display cases along the walls, and the object labels are relatively simple and clear. However, MOHAI soon departs from these traditional exhibition techniques. As visitors turn the next corner and enter the next exhibition space, the room seems to suddenly open. Light pours in through large windows, and interactive displays speak and move. In the second room, visitors are invited to play with an interactive animation on a computer screen that teaches about Chinook jargon. While there are interactive computer terminals spread throughout the MOHAI exhibits encouraging user engagement, this particular monitor was especially impressive: the display can be raised and lowered according to a visitor’s height, increasing access for smaller people, children, and guests in wheelchairs. The same display also accommodates much taller museum patrons. The handle, seen on the bottom of the screen, can be used to guide the display up and down along a vertical rail.
This kind of thoughtful approach to accessibility can also be seen in another interactive display, which can be found in a section of the exhibition dedicated to the Klondike Gold Rush. In the center of the room stand two antique-style slot machines, back to back. Visitors can pull a lever to reveal three images, casino-style, and the images correspond to unique anecdotes from people’s experiences during the Gold Rush, giving MOHAI visitors the opportunity to experience the full variety of the possibilities offered by Seattle when it was a city of western pioneers. The two slot machines stand at drastically different heights, with one machine situated at eye-level for an average adult, while the second machine is at eye-level for a child or person in a wheelchair. No interactive exhibit seems to have been made without attention to the necessary details of accessibility.
Perhaps the most memorable part of the permanent historical exhibit is a room dedicated to the massive Seattle fire of 1889, an inferno that wiped out about thirty blocks of the city’s historic downtown. MOHAI tells the story of the fire in an interactive sound, video, and light program, which runs every fifteen minutes. Not only does the exhibit engage visitors, but it also engages with itself, though a smart use of lighting effects and historic artifacts. After reading about the Gold Rush and the construction of western railroads, visitors are guided back towards the large atrium and the walkway around its perimeter on the second level. They are then guided past recreations of historic nineteenth-century shop windows towards a small theater, and a sign at the door lets viewers know when the next Great Fire show is due to begin. A friendly docent let me know that although the show had just begun, I should walk inside and sit down, as only a minute or two of the program had elapsed.
The small theater is shaped like a rectangle, with a few simple benches placed along the back wall, facing a screen, a mural, and a selection of objects in individual glass cases. These individual glass cases, containing artifacts from the Great Fire, can actually be spotted on each of the room’s four walls, and visitors can see dolls, firefighter uniforms, melted plates and marbles, and the glue pot that started the fire. The walls are lined with charred wood, and fire hoses stretch across the front of the room. A large mural depicting the Great Fire can be seen behind the screen in the front of the room, and a brilliantly funny, and catchy song plays along with images of the fire and its aftermath. Through an intelligent use of light, voice, and sound, the artifacts in the exhibit also seem to sing along, chiming in about the circumstances of the fire, the causes for the raging inferno, and the rapid reconstruction of the city in the fire’s wake.
The entire story of the Great Fire is told in song, and as part of the story is sung, a moving spotlight illuminates a specific artifact, giving one the impression that each object is joining in the chorus. The words to the song are displayed on the screen in a sing-along style, and as the words are sung, a little image bounces along so visitors can join in. The invitation to sing about Seattle’s history seems to be appreciated by MOHAI patrons, and after watching the film a few times, I had the impression that most groups feel comfortable somewhat engaging and participating in the activity. The bouncing icons on the screen correspond to the item currently “singing,” guiding viewers’ attention. When the glue pot sings, a little image of a glue pot bounces across the screen in line with the lyrics, while the actual glue pot that started the fire is lit up under a spotlight in front of the screen. The story of the fire is told with whimsy and humor, and the song is incredibly catchy. Exhibition designers at the MOHAI, and the contracted design and animation firms, were mindful of the fact that this terrible tragedy led to civic progress and revitalization, and the film performance leaves viewers feeling proud of their city and its spiritedness.
This thoughtful approach to accessibility and interactivity carries throughout all twenty-five sections of True Northwest: The Seattle Journey. In addition to being interactive, inviting, and appropriate for all ages, the permanent exhibition also provides a balanced and fair perspective on the city’s history. The displays do not gloss over difficult periods in civic affairs or shameful decisions made by Seattle’s founders. For example, many sections of the permanent collection displays address periods of bigotry, racism, and harm inflicted upon specific ethnic groups. For example, in a room dedicated to the history of the railroad’s westward expansion, a family-oriented interactive hammering game shares the space with a display case dedicated to the story of the exploited Chinese laborers who participated in railroad construction. Significant attention is also given to the anti-Chinese riots of 1886, when many Chinese residents were rounded up and forced to leave the city—an event that did not transpire without incurring physical violence.
The MOHAI exhibits also don’t shy away from the unsavory details of the story of Japanese internment and the darker moments experienced by Japanese Seattleites in the WWII era. While the museum could have glossed over this difficult subject, it is addressed rather candidly. The inclusion of this part of the Seattle story is finally redeemed at the end of the chronological tour, where visitors encounter a life-sized mannequin dressed in a beautiful red kimono. The costume was gifted to MOHAI by the city of Kyoto in 1952 as a gesture of forgiveness and friendship, and its prominent display is a testament to the museum’s thoughtful and balanced perspective.
In addition to acknowledging the trials and tribulations experienced by citizens of Asian descent, True Northwest: The Seattle Journey also addresses larger issues of sexism, racism, and labor unrest. It is a bold move on the museum’s part, and a gesture of which only a truly thoughtful civic institution is capable. A similar energy can be found in other difficult subjects, which were prominently featured in the displays. Objects and labels present viewers with fair and honest information about the WTO protests, the struggles of local indigenous groups, and Washington’s House Un-American Activities Committee and its attack on professors at the University of Washington in the mid-1950s. These exhibits present a blemished, balanced, an accurate portrait of a pioneer city and modern epicenter of global commerce.
MOHAI is, generally, an incredibly successful museum project. It is a welcoming environment, with a sensitive, intelligent, and balanced approach to its wealth of interactive and educational displays. All visitors, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, or physical ability, should feel welcomed.
 LMN Architects, http://lmnarchitects.com/work/museum_of_history_and_industry (Accessed May 4, 2013).
 AAM Museum Admission Benefit data, July 7, 2012.
 AAM List of Accredited Museums, April 2013.