The old site of the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) was a piece of history in and of itself. Upon visiting the new location, I was prepared to feel a little sad about leaving the old space. That feeling lasted about 30 seconds, disappearing completely as we crossed the threshold into the magical new space that is home to MOHAI.
If the old adage "bigger is better" is true, then MOHAI has improved exponentially. The new space in the World War II Naval Reserve Armory in Lake Union Park is simply spectacular. The building has roughly 10,000 square feet more exhibit space than its University District location, as well as a variety of additional event and meeting spaces.
The grand atrium immediately invites you into the history of Seattle. The history and landscape of Seattle is diverse, rich, humorous and awe-inspiring, and the exhibits at MOHAI capture these elements beautifully. The atrium is designed for meandering; whatever catches your eye, go there first. But be ready: your family probably won't agree on where to start.
My 8-year-old daughter wanted to check out the giant sculpture at the north end of the atrium. "Wawona" is a 65-foot wooden spire created by local installation artist John Grade. It is made from timbers of the deconstructed Wawona, a turn-of-the-century schooner. The sculpture is shaped in an open spiral that allows visitors to walk right into the center of the spire and see the bottom of the sculpture that descends through the floor of the Armory into Lake Union. Did I mention, it's pretty darn cool?
My 11-year-old son, however, raced to the south end of the atrium to check out a hands-on exhibit on technology and how to build a video game. While I didn't try out this exhibit myself, I was impressed with how long my son wanted to stay in this space.
The atrium also features a Boeing B-1 seaplane and Seattle's first hydroplane, the Slo-mo-shun IV, hanging from the rafters. While there are numerous items to ogle on the giant scale, there are also plenty of hands-on areas for little ones. From dress-up stations to puppet booths to movable displays with hand cranks, the atrium is full of opportunities for exploration. If you are visiting the museum with a 3- to 6-year-old, be sure to ask the front desk for an exploration pack, which includes activities, scavenger hunts and other ways to help younger guests connect to the exhibits.
The majority of the museum's exhibits are found on the second through fourth floors that wind around the building, continuously opening to the atrium. While you don't have to do these in any particular order, the second floor is set up with a few chronological exhibits before things become more topical. This gallery is called "True Northwest: The Seattle Journey" and follows the story of the area from wilderness to big city. It begins with the native landscape, peoples and natural resources, then moves rather quickly into the development of the Seattle area and stories of the early pioneers. My kids were quick to pick up on recognizable names such as Yesler and Carkeek.
There was one stand-out room in this area for me – the exhibit dedicated to the story of the Great Seattle Fire. From the fake charred wood that lines the wall to the partially melted lump of nails, this room is so full of interesting details that it is well worth some extra time. The highlight of the room is without a doubt the short film on the fire, a story told with humor and a catchy song. Possibly the best part of this exhibit is knowing that the terrible tragedy was turned into a great opportunity to build a better Seattle, with better planning and eyes toward longevity.
All of the exhibits in this portion of the museum feature hands-on opportunities for kids. They can try their hand at pounding nails into the expanding railroad track or try their luck with a one-armed bandit to strike it rich in the gold rush. With so many valuable things that are for eyes only, it's great to have so many things that kids are allowed to touch and use.
There is something to interest everyone in your family in the themed areas. My son lingered for quite a while with his dad in the room dedicated to the Seattle music scene, gobbling up every photo, quote and bit of memorabilia. It was the same thing when we visited the room on Seattle's connection to sports. I was pleased to see that this exhibit featured not only the mainstream professional sports teams, but also the great outdoor adventure sports that play an important role in Northwest life such as skiing, kayaking and mountaineering.
My daughter's favorite themed room was "Celluloid Seattle," showing how Seattle has been depicted in movies as well as information about favorite historical movie theaters around town. While she hadn't seen most of the movies, she still loved spotting familiar sites such as the Space Needle and Pike Place Market.
While it may seem that the majority of the exhibits sing the praises of Seattle, there are areas that touch on some of the darker parts of the city's history. Despite the despondent subject matter, I enjoyed the exhibit dedicated to telling the story of the Japanese internment camps during WWII. I'm glad the museum didn't gloss over or skip this subject. Its inclusion is a reminder of how far we have come.
Just like the history of Seattle, the museum begins at the water. If the weather prevents you from enjoying the view of Lake Union before you enter the museum, then the fourth floor is a must see. With walls of windows you can look out over the lake as well as at the museum's neighbors.
If plain old window viewing is too boring, you're in luck; the museum also features a submarine periscope mounted into the fourth floor that allows guests to get the full 360 degree view. With a nice step built around the base, it's super easy for kids to use this amazing tool. Even adults cannot resist taking a peek. This room is full of the maritime history of Seattle and is displayed in partnership with the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society.
I'm not sure if it was intentional or not, but the literal and physical connection of the atrium's sculpture down into Lake Union and the periscope extending up into the sky was symbolic for me. The history of Seattle cannot be separated from its history of industry. Seattle has literally grown from the sea to the sky, and you can see it all at MOHAI.
If You Go
Where: 860 Terry Ave. N., Seattle.
When: Daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and until 8 p.m. on Thursdays. Join MOHAI every Saturday for Family Lab, with an array of exhibit-themed activities that the whole family can enjoy. New activities are offered each week, including take-home crafts, collaborative games and hands-on artifact exploration (free with regular paid admission).
Cost: $14 for people ages 15 and older, $12 for students, seniors and military, free for children 14 and younger with a chaperone. Admission is free on the first Thursday of the month. Group and member discounts are available.
Parking: MOHAI visitors receive discounted parking at the AGC Lot (1200 Westlake Ave. N.): $5 during weekdays and $4 nights and weekends for up to 10 hours. Tickets can be validated at the front desk. There is also street parking, or you can opt to ride the bus or streetcar.
Contact: 206-324-1126; www.mohai.org.
Kelly Rogers Flynt is a freelance writer based out of Lake Forest Park and the mother of two budding historians, ages 8 and 11.