Seattle’s MOHAI: A Model for Local Museum Reinvention

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Saturday, January 5th, 2013

MOHAI on Lake Union

Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) reopened on December 29th at its new location in Lake Union Park. The museum is at the leading edge of a trend that’s sweeping regional museums across the US. The MOHAI set out to create a completely different experience for visitors than the average local museum, through interactive exhibit design and cohesive storytelling.

Museums like the MOHAI are asking tough questions about what it means to really tell the story of a city or region. Technology and interactivity are used to stimulate authentic conversations about history, social issues, and cultural concerns. The MOHAI reopening has received both interest from the public and critical acclaim.

Housed in a former Naval Armory built above Lake Union, the redesigned MOHAI is not a small project. The renovation cost $90 million dollars, and the building features more than 50,000 square feet of exhibit space. The New York Times described it as “Seattle, in an alluring self-portrait.”New MOHAI Seattle exterior view

The MOHAI’s designers and curation team struggled with big questions. What’s deeply unique about Seattle? Is there a distinct local look and feel? Why have certain movements and types of industry flourished here? How can we convey tensions in the city both respectfully and productively?

LMN Architects partnered with the MOHAI’s management team to redesign the space. The museum tackles a range of themes, from basic historical overviews to in-depth trends like the Beat poets. Pacific Studio and the Weatherhead Experience Design Group developed individual exhibits.MOHAI  Seattle opens in new space

The museum atrium is particularly striking. Lake Union is visible through the floor of the building. The first aircraft manufactured by Boeing is suspended overhead. A towering 65-foot statue by artist John Grade uses planks salvaged from a schooner that sailed the Lake.

Technology, touch screens, and gamification are being used to bring important aspects of the past alive. For example, a two-person video game allows visitors to explore 1948 hearings on “Un-American Behaviors.” A projected light and sound show tells the story of an 1889 fire that nearly destroyed Seattle. In “Celluloid Seattle,” the history of the city in film over the past century is examined. Films are shown from the 1920s, alongside a set recreation from the popular sitcom “Frasier.”MOHAI Seattle exhibit

Other exhibits explore important issues that are specific to Seattle’s history. Why did a city with such a small population spawn so many major commercial ventures? Seattle is the hometown of major companies like Starbucks, UPS, Amazon, Microsoft, and Boeing. These corporations coexist with other very different influences: grunge bands, the festival scene, and a strong environmentalist movement.

The MOHAI has a big mission: to tell the rich and complex story of Seattle in an honest and engaging way. Critics have complained that there were important omissions from the storyline  including a realistic view of early Native American life in the region. Yet with its careful design, diverse exhibits, and integrated storytelling, MOHAI visitors will leave with a clear understanding of Seattle’s past and present.MOHAI at Lake Union Park interior

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