The Other MOHAI
by Knute Berger
Bobo the gorilla, one of MOHAI's more than 100,000 artifacts. Credit: jeck_crow via Flickr (CC)
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 4×5 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.
There's also a special place in the other MOHAI for storing textiles in optimal conditions, and there are offices too, including those for MOHAI partner organizations the Black Heritage Society of Washington and the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society. The total cost of moving MOHAI was $90 million; $17 million went into the Georgetown facility.
In the large work spaces used for restoring and preparing artifacts and creating exhibits, I came across a treasure trove. An original gondola from the old Union 76 Sky Ride from the Seattle World's Fair was grounded in one corner. Decorative elements from the old White Henry Stuart Building were laid out on a nearby table. The head of a terra cotta Indian chief, soon to be mounted at the Museum on SLU, stares at the high ceiling like the grim bust of a Roman senator after the fall. The Indian head once adorned the building that was demolished to make room for Rainier Square, and was said to have been inspired by an Edward Curtis portrait. The Cobb building has Indian heads also.
The highlight of the tour is the huge storeroom where MOHAI keeps its permanent collection. The room is, in effect, Seattle's attic. There's a race car, a sleigh, a trolley and huge wooden ship's wheels from long lost vessels. Many years ago, I got a behind-the-scenes tour of the collection at Montlake from the late Dr. James Warren, and it was a bit like being in Fibber McGee's closet, to trot out an ancient radio-era analogy. It was glorious, semi-cluttered chaos where anything might come into hand, like a relic from the 1889 Great Fire or Colonel Granville Haller's sword.
Any city's collection is a hodge-podge owing to the nature of what people donate and what manages to survive time. MOHAI's public historian, Lorraine McConaghy, has noted the museum's over-abundance of donated inkstands, which came courtesy of turn-of-the-century executives. The ink stand was apparently a 19th-Century status symbol, but hardly what today's museumgoer longs to see or study—though surely there's a master's thesis in there for someone.
At any given time, some two percent of MOHAI objects are on display, the other 98 percent will live here. The move has allowed a kind of organizational re-boot of the collection, a major undertaking given the 100,000 or so objects in the collection. The new space features huge shelves on which everything is neatly stored and labeled. If this were Citizen Kane's warehouse, Rosebud would be tagged and in its place on a shelf. About half the artifacts are moved in so far, and the rest are on the way.
The first thing I notice in the big room needs no label. Peeking through a glass window into the storage space, I spot the famous MOHAI dollhouse. Sitting in the middle of the giant warehouse, it looks like an intentional art installation: a colonial house inside a warehouse. (Is that a comment on bourgeoise suburban values?) Later, I get to see it up close. All the furniture and fixtures have been removed, just like you would before moving a real house. It looks like a fixer-upper now, a grand home gone to seed. I don't know if it will ever appear at the new MOHAI—maybe fixed up and decorated for Christmas? Giske tells me there is a volunteer caretaker of the house, beloved by the generations who visited it at Montlake.
The house is the kind of MOHAI icon that baffles the museum's curators: something beloved, but does it really belong in a Seattle history museum? Bobo falls into the same category, though he will make appearances from time to time in SLU's rotating exhibit. MOHAI's art collection hangs nearby. I notice more than one large portrait of hairy patriarch Ezra Meeker, the Puget Sound pioneer who, among other things, introduced hop growing to the area. (Raise a pint of craft beer to Ezra). He was also one of the most amazing self-promoters in state history, as the multiple portraits attest.
Personally, I love the random quirkiness of museums in general, and MOHAI in particular. The Dog House diner's neon sign is in the warehouse somewhere, which is comforting to know. All Roads Lead to Cool Stuff?
Across the room, I spot a tangerine-and-gold Ion chair. This is one of the Space Needle's original restaurant chairs, a modern classic of furniture design. Gideon Kramer, the chair's designer, died last March. But I had a chance to interview him in 2011. He told me the history of the chair's design, how he and his family worked on sanding the wooden armrests for the chairs at the dinner table so they could meet the tight deadline for World's Fair delivery. One of his sons even turned Sherpa and hand carried some of the chairs to the top of the Needle when the elevator wasn't available. The chairs were space aged, but hand-made. In his '90s, Kramer told me he was still working to perfect the chair. MOHAI's warehouse is a repository not just of objects but of the stories and memories those objects evoke.
Some scholars worried that by putting the collection in Georgetown, the museum was marginalizing it, making it less accessible. The old MOHAI's proximity to the University of Washington (walking distance at Montlake) made it easy for visiting scholars to drop by. Many regional archives are a bit inconvenient. (Think Eastgate or Sand Point). But MOHAI's Resource Center seems like a big improvement for those that maintain and use the collections—and it's just a few minutes off I-5, right on the way to or from the airport.
The new Resource Center is not a place the general public will see much of, but that's not its purpose. It looks like it will make storing objects, running the museum and mounting new exhibits much easier. Seattle's new attic is set up to preserve our heritage for the long term.
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