This past week I had the pleasure of exploring Seattle while attending the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) conference. I was staying with friend who studies museology at U. Washington, obviously the two of us visited the city’s wonderful museums. The thing that struck me and has stuck with me since I left was the Museum of History and Industries’ (MOHAI, “Moe-high”) employment of hands-on science museum type exhibits (in a history museum! Unheard of!)
One of the problems that history museums suffer under is their comparative lack of interactive exhibits the like that make science museums children’s’ favorite places to go and their parents’ favorite place to leave them. One of the benefits that MOHAI has is its focus on industry, itself a child of science, however the hands on exhibits are not limited to industry.
In fact, the entire museum’s narrative focuses on the awesomeness of Seattle and its people, not necessarily industry (as in how gears work). After spending a few days in the city I think the museum is pretty accurate, not at all grandiose bragging. As a city Seattle is very progressive, they recycle everything very little of what we deem as trash is trash in Seattle, they have a vibrant bike culture; there are bikes, bike lane, bicyclists all over the city, and the air smells amazing. The museum catalogues the city’s rise to this point: the beginning of their social and environmental consciousness as well as their participation in national narratives like the Depression and WWII.
How is the museum interactive?
This is not your “try and churn butter” kind of interactions; it is button and lever based (linking dexterity with historical learning). The narratives in the exhibit put guests in the period saying things like: “Seattle’s business district just burned, but that gives us the opportunity for urban renewal.” Each exhibit aims at being immersive in narrative content, which works well with the interactive exhibits because they encourage visitors to think about the past in terms of human actions, thus breading empathy which works well for creating a place based historical identity. It does a great job at making history a personal story, and making Seattle a unique place. (A very place-y, place)
My favorite interactive exhibit was in the Early Seattle hall, set aside as an alternative path. Inside the round room guests learn about the environment in Seattle and how people have significantly altered the area. On one wall there was a caged in 3D map of the city with buttons outside of the cage. Each button triggered a pulley system that raised or lowered a piece of landscape onto the map; land was flattened (it is still very hilly there), and bodies of water shifted and shrank. It was a engaging and alarming way to illustrate how human’s changed the landscape. While the majority of the museum spoke with a voice that linked contemporary Seattleites (?) with their ancestors through shared space, this short de-tour exhibit illustrated that the landscape guests know is unique in that moment of history, while each generations experiences Seattle, the land itself, not the city’s character is what changes. This fits in well with the city’s environmental consciousness, and illustrates and understanding of the landscape as both the keeper of character and something that is extremely sensitive to human interactions.
Lastly, in the Seattle Fire Theater there was a song and video about the fire which featured singing artifacts. Here is a taste: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48LxJ_E_xGI
It is corny, but corny is memorable. It is something that will bring people back to the museum with friends, because “You have got to see this!”