Buh-bye Bobo

Seattle's beloved (stuffed) gorilla will leave his museum home for "plastic surgery" before relocating to South Lake Union, but his place in the new MOHAI remains up in the air.

Crosscut archive image.

Bobo the gorilla, Seattle, ca. 1955

Seattle's beloved (stuffed) gorilla will leave his museum home for "plastic surgery" before relocating to South Lake Union, but his place in the new MOHAI remains up in the air.

At one time, the gorilla of our dreams was Bobo, Seattle's biggest celebrity of the 1950s and '60s. Bobo lived at the Woodland Park Zoo and his life and love life was covered as if he was a Kardashian. Comedian Bill Cosby had a whole routine devoted to Seattle, highlighted by the city's obsession with Bobo's sex life, or lack of it. (You can hear it here.)

After death, parts of the beloved Bobo wound up in different places. His bones are in the Burke Museum, including his long-missing skull. Some of his remains, donated to the UW, made the rounds of local medical labs. My father, a research pathologist who did heart research in a basement laboratory in our house in Mt. Baker, wound up with a piece of the ape's aorta for study.

But as most people know, Bobo's skin was stuffed and has been on display at the Museum of History and Industry. The museum's executive director, Leonard Garfield, says most people love him, a few are "disturbed" by him. With the museum in transition, one wonders: What will become of Bobo.

MOHAI is moving. The old Museum will close in June of 2012 and the new museum is scheduled to open in November. It will have a grand new exhibition space at South Lake Union in the historic Naval Reserve Armory, while much of the museum's behind-the-scenes collection and archives will be headed for a facility in Georgetown. The old Paul Thiry-designed MOHAI will be demolished for an expanded Highway 520.

Already, the walls at the museum's Montlake headquarters are showing bare spots where relics have been removed. There's even a windowed area where you can watch museum employees packing up. It's a huge change — historic you might say — and the new exhibits promise to offer a multi-media, populist experience that is a step beyond the static, staid old exhibits and dioramas that were mainstays at the MOHAI you grew up with. Think a history museum injected with a little EMP-style energy, where people can get film, sound and interact with high-tech displays and graphics. It's definitely designed to teach and engage the kids.

So with Seattle's attic being cleaned, will Bobo make the final cut? Where does a lone gorilla fit into telling the Seattle story? In the past the museum has hosted discussions about what was learned from Bobo during his captivity, and his story certainly tells us something about the culture of the pre-world's fair city. Garfield promises a place of honor. But first, he says, "Bobo's going in for some serious plastic surgery."

He's been in for surgery before, and Crosscut contributor Feliks Banel, who used to work for MOHAI, gave a great history of Bobo-the-exhibit here. Bobo underwent a major overhaul in the year 2000. The stuffing and previous rehabbing was done by Klineburger's taxidermy, but the museum has yet to pick a vendor for the new work. He at least needs some hair and skin restoration. Who doesn't? Bobo was born in 1951 and died in 1968. If he'd lived, he'd be 60.

Once he's fixed, where will he fit in at a flashier new museum? MOHAI has done a wonderful job in preserving and exhibiting the city's pop culture obsessions, from Seafair and Century 21 to our memorable neon signs (the Rainier Beer "R"). But an ape is so . . . random. And a stuffed ape might be considered politically incorrect by today's standards, in a town packed with folks who believe animals should be treated like humans. Of course, we have preserved humans too. Check out the Burke's mummy.

A strong possibility is to include Bobo in what is currently called The Grid, an exhibit section on the main floor of the former Naval armory that, in sketches, looks reminiscent of the old Hollywood Squares grid. Each section will contain popular and well-known artifacts. Exhibits in The Grid would rotate, so Bobo might not be on permanent display, but cycled through as part of a collection of historic icons. It does not look like Bobo will be there on opening day, but frankly, it's hard for me to imagine Bobo being relegated to storage in Georgetown or a repair shop for such an event. He deserves being rolled down the red carpet.

In any case, let's hope his plastic surgery goes well and he will be back "in action" as soon as possible.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.