2012: A good year for Seattle's memory banks

2012: A good year for Seattle's memory banks

2012: A good year for Seattle's memory banks

The ancient Romans employed a handy phrase: “The object speaks for itself.” An object housed at the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) speaks volumes.

The “Iron Chink” was a machine designed to clean and dress salmon and replace the Chinese cannery workers who performed those tasks by hand. At the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific-Exposition, noted MOHAI public historian Lorraine McConaghy, the machine (under its racist moniker) won a grand prize.

If that fact opens a window into another era, it also affirms Faulkner’s dictum: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

For, in the 1980s, under an earlier MOHAI regime, McConaghy said the identifying tag was removed.

“They must have been well-meaning people,” she mused, wondering what compound of political correctness caused the historical record to be altered. The label was subsequently screwed back on.

Of the present-day MOHAI, McConaghy said, “We would never interfere with the authenticity of the past.” 

McConaghy, who earned her doctorate degree in history from the University of Washington, is passionate about the existential possibilities of history, especially in a city like Seattle, where, in recent decades, change seems to be the one constant. 

“With no understanding of the past, the present is mysterious and chaotic,” she stated. “It’s impossible to make informed choices about the future.”

MOHAI, tucked away in Montlake, opened Feb. 15, 1952. On June 7, it will shut down to begin its move into the landmark Naval Reserve Armory Building at Lake Union Park. 

A precious cargo of some 150,000 artifacts — from beads to the Boeing B-I seaplane — will make the trek. The old MOHAI building, designed by Paul Thiry, will fall to the wrecking ball. 

The relocation represents more than a change of address. There’s a sweet symmetry to MOHAI’s setting up shop where David Denny operated his first sawmill and Bill Boeing built his first airplane assembly plant. A crossroads of Seattle history is a history-making neighborhood once more — in biotech research and Amazon’s ongoing, cyber-retail revolution.

MOHAI’s vision — both backward and forward-looking — fits into the dynamic environment. 

As McConaghy views it: “The future — 21st-century metropolitan Seattle — is in our hands.” 

If Seattle’s famous obsession with process casts doubt on that outlook, the historian puts her finger on a historical truth: “Seattle is one of most civil-engineered cities in the nation.”

A landmark year for history

Anyone absent from the city a decade or two can be excused for feeling like Rip Van Winkle. 

Paul Allen’s South Lake Union extreme makeover, Sound Transit and the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct would be eye-openers. And Ballard, historically an unassimilated redoubt, is hip. Pioneer Square has declined, yet again, while Columbia City and Georgetown have risen.

None of these changes, however, rival what happened in 1962, after a handful of city fathers decided to put Seattle “on the map.”

The Seattle Center will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, or the Century 21 Exposition, from April 21 to Oct. 21. The 1962 Fair and its 2012 remembrance are creatures of perfect timing. As with so many things, it’s about all about the baby boomers. 

In 1962, about a quarter of this city’s population came in at 14-and-younger, almost double today’s figure. Surely, 50 years ago, no one contemplated what a ready market for Century 21 nostalgia would exist in 2012, but here we are: Century 21 gets the boomers coming and going. 

The 50th-anniversary celebrations, entitled “The Next 50,” are as much about the future as the past, however. The observances are being organized and driven by a younger generation, mostly from elsewhere. 

MOHAI is very much involved with the proceedings and will, among other activities, conduct walking tours of the Seattle Center grounds.

Meanwhile, two books under way promise to add to the city’s stock of memory. Knute Berger, author of “Pugetopolis,” is composing a history of the Space Needle and is, in fact, Space Needle writer-in-residence — not bad for an 8-year-old who watched, with the rest of Seattle, as the Space Needle clawed its way above the stubby Seattle skyline. 

And Seattle historian Paul Dorpat continues to work on a biography of Ivar Haglund, a book reportedly of Tolstoyan proportions that may, or not, see the light of day in 2012. 

Late last year saw the appearance of the superb “The Future Remembered: The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and its Legacy,” by Paula Becker and Alan Stein.

Where history is being made

MOHAI is slated to open in its new quarters, which include a waterfront café and terrace, on Nov. 7.

The nonprofit has grown to become one of the largest private heritage organizations in the state, with 35 full- and part-time employees and an annual operating budget of $2.5 million. The Montlake location counts some 75,000 visitors a year; 100,000 annual visitors are projected for South Lake Union.

“It is a great thing because it’s a very visible location for them in an up-and-coming neighborhood,” said Nathan Torgelson, policy and development manager for Seattle Parks and Recreation. 

Torgelson noted that MOHAI had to hit certain milestones, mostly financial, before it could move into the art deco U.S. Naval Reserve base, built in 1942 and purchased by the city in 2000. The $60 million project is paid for by a combination of federal tax credits, state funding and an ambitious capital campaign.

“You look at South Lake Union today and that’s where history is being made,” Torgelson said. “It’s directly on the water, and you think of Seattle’s maritime history.” 

Into the mix, Amazon’s Jeff Bazos has donated $10 million to establish a Center for Innovation for MOHAI’s new location, a place to teach the young about innovative companies that have impacted Seattle and the world.

MOHAI’s administrative offices and collection of some 4 million photographs and archives will split from the museum and take up residence in Georgetown.

Preserver of memory

In its Montlake location, MOHAI has served as a nexus, even a pilgrimage point for those interested in Seattle’s past.

The museum’s inventory ranges from kitsch to the profound, from Lincoln Towing Co.’s original “Pink Toe Truck” to a blown-up, early sketch of Seattle that shows its sparse collection of shacks from the harbor. 

Exhibitions like “Regional Painters of Puget Sound 1870-1920” or “The Purse and the Person: A Century of Women’s Purses” have approached history from unexpected and illuminating angles. Films on constant loop include rare glimpses of Seattle’s Hooverville and Seattle’s World War II years.

If history is an abstract, even off-putting concept to some, McConaghy is quick to remind that history is about people. She stands before a display case where a pair of big-toothed, crosscut saws hangs — “misery whip” is what they were called. Below the saws hangs a huge, circular slice of tree.

“Can you imagine sawing that with someone else?” she asked, reducing any other musings to the overwhelming question.

McConaghy, whose books include “Warship Under Sail: The USS Decatur in the Pacific West,” is at work on a new book, scheduled to be published next year, about a young, runaway slave in Olympia. 

“Yes, we had slaves here,” she said, opening another, little-known window to our state’s past.

McConaghy believes a visit to MOHAI should not be a passive experience — quite the opposite.

 “I’d like visitors to be delighted by the artifacts, the primary material we have,” she said. “I’d like them to feel the past was made by choosing and that they can choose.”

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