Much has been made about the new Museum of History and Industry at South Lake Union, but let's not forget the "other" new MOHAI. Tucked in a non-cool part of Georgetown, south of the Seattle Design Center in the warehouse and showroom ghetto of the Industrial District, is the heart of the museum's behind-the-scenes operation: the "MOHAI Resource Center."
When the museum was displaced from Montlake by the 520 expansion project, the old MOHAI had to find a new home. Relocating to the old Naval Armory at South Lake Union and transforming it into a high-profile, high-tech exhibit and public-engagement space was a good decision. But the old Armory building didn't leave much room for the guts of the museum operation, the stuff the public doesn't see: administrative offices, the research library and the expansive collection. (We civilians only see a small fraction of what MOHAI owns, all of which needs to be stored somewhere when it's not on display, and much of which still needs to be accessible to researchers and scholars.)
MOHAI's solution was to acquire the old vacant headquarters of a company that sold marble for all those granite counter tops you find in condos. The museum converted the building's high-ceilinged warehouse spaces into new homes for prizes like gorilla Bobo's stuffed remains, Edward Curtis prints and the innumerable artifacts that are part of the museum's collections.
I took a tour of the facility under the guidance of longtime MOHAI employee Howard Giske, who is the museum's curator of photography. Giske is the guy many people deal with when they want to find or reproduce the historic images that are so much a part of what MOHAI collects, displays and disseminates. His domain in the research library, which includes computers, scanners, light table and old fashioned file cabinets, feels spacious compared to the old MOHAI, which sometimes felt like heritage's rabbit warren.
Giske's room is divided into offices, public space (tables for researchers and volunteers combing through the collection) and storage space. The large room is split by the great Wall of Map Cases—metal horizontal files with large flat drawers that contain things that have to lie flat. Opening a couple of drawers at random I came across old maps of the Columbia River, a Canadian Pacific railroad map and copies of Edward Curtis' portfolios.
Behind the wall is something Giske is really excited about: a cold storage room. And who wouldn't ne? Film, especially slides and negatives on acetate, gets brittle, crinkles and crumbles like autumn leaves. But film can be protected by keeping it cold, even freezing. Preserving negatives is extremely important for MOHAI, and Giske keeps the cold room's thermostat at a nippy 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The relative humidity remains a constant 40 percent which, according to a digital indicator, will help keep all that film in mint condition for 445 years. Stepping into this "cold room" feels like stepping onto the porch to pick up the newspaper on a chilly January morning.
Giske is also excited about some recent additions to the collection. The museum has received the balance of the old Seattle Post-Intelligencer's photographic archives, right up to when the paper shut down its print edition in 2009. This completes a donation to MOHAI of the paper's entire photographic archives. The batch represents about 85 four-drawer file cabinets worth of material, says Giske. They have prints, negatives, contact sheets, even the digital images that P-I photographers shot in recent years, an extraordinary resource for historians, more precious even than the beloved P-I globe, which will also come to MOHAI someday.
Negatives are being chilled and prints are on file or scanned. The newest P-I pictures, digital images on CDs or DVDs, are stored in dated boxes. Giske says one challenge with digital is the sheer volume of the material. It's a challenge to sort through these treasures and index them all. In the old days of newspaper photography, explains Giske, a guy shooting with glass plates might have made one or two images of a news subject. In the era of 4x5 Speed Graphic press cameras, photographers might have taken five or six shots. In the era of digital motor drives, a single press conference might generate a hundred or more images. Just figuring out what's in the P-I collection will take some time. But kudos to Hearst and the P-I for contributing this work to posterity.
With its own servers and IT department, MOHAI can access stuff on line and store it electronically. Still, Giske is building a traditional dark room. When you traffic in historic images, dark room technology never goes out of date.
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