Making history, MOHAI looks ahead

Innovation takes on slashed budgets at the new MOHAI in South Lake Union.
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The Seattle Naval Reserve Armory, under renovation to become MOHAI's new home.

Innovation takes on slashed budgets at the new MOHAI in South Lake Union.

Late last month, the grand new Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) opened at South Lake Union — a big day for Seattle heritage. One of the most important aspects of the new museum will be public engagement. A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to consult on the new exhibit themes, and in working with members of the MOHAI team, I was impressed by how much they wanted to take the “museum” out of the museum. They wanted exhibits that were entertaining, interactive and accessible, especially to young people.

That’s a big change from the old MOHAI. It had been invigorated in recent years, but still felt too stuffy, provincial, in the box. Worse, it was hidden away at Montlake, almost invisible. One of the advantages of the new MOHAI is its great visibility in a park on Lake Union. It makes a very public statement: Seattle has history! Who knew?

The MOHAI move is happening because of major public investments in the State Route 520 corridor and South Lake Union. MOHAI needed a new home because it was sitting at ground zero for the widening of a state highway. But heritage, in general, has been under attack. In Olympia, slashed budgets have endangered institutions like the Washington State Archives and the invaluable Washington State Historical Society, which could face huge potential funding gaps after 2013.

Look for heritage institutions to increasingly cast themselves as educational institutions to survive. If education is a primary function of state and local governments, museums must be part of the equation. They are places where scholars learn what the rest of us should know; they are the repositories of our collective knowledge and experience; they are classrooms.

Budget cutting is forcing more public outreach, but even before tightened belts, museums were moving in this direction. MOHAI can’t usefully survive as an attic for Seattle’s old families; it has to remain relevant for the rest of us. The new MOHAI, for example, will launch a “Center for Innovation” in late 2013, underwritten by a $10 million donation from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, which will look to teach young people “about the role of innovation, and to inspire them with the knowledge and tools to keep Seattle at the forefront as a global center of innovation.” History and industry are linked in the museum’s mission, as they are in its shiny new SLU neighborhood.

Exhibit A in the innovation center could be Edward S. Curtis, the subject of Tim Egan’s new book, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, which tells the story of the creation of the famed Seattle photographer’s magnum opus, his 20-volume The North American Indian.

The story is one of triumph and tragedy. Curtis, an amateur, took on the mission of attempting to document the vanishing life and culture of Native Americans, from the Arctic to Arizona, at the turn of the 20th century. Much of his work was sponsored by financier J.P. Morgan, but Curtis took no pay for it and eventually went broke on the project. In a race against time, he was driven to document North American tribes as they seemed on the brink of extinction. The result was a record of extreme beauty and value: The world he attempted to capture vanished literally as he was documenting it.

In his Seattle studio in 1896, Curtis took his first photograph of an Indian, Chief Seattle’s elderly daughter, Princess Angeline. He later convinced Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce to sit for portraits. (See both iconic images at Curtis was a professional photographer, but an amateur historian, ethnographer, linguist and anthropologist. He pursued his work with an intense focus, using every medium at his disposal, from wax cylinder recorders to silent-movie cameras, but he did not have scholarly standing, or public funding. The story of this Herculean labor is long, complex and powerfully told by Egan.

It’s a reminder that even in Seattle’s “short” history, there were people devoted to preserving heritage, and that has had a huge impact. Curtis wanted people to see beyond the stereotypes of Indians (this was the era when Custer was still a hero), to see them as truly human. That’s what our museums can do, not only by preserving and exhibiting the work of people like Curtis, but inspiring the next generations to act. They can inspire us to do what Curtis did. As Egan concludes, “He not only saw history, but made it.” History and innovation can go together, and should.  

This article originally appeared in the December issue of Seattle Magazine.


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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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