The MHN Blog is a companion to the Maritime Heritage Network, a not-for-profit, comprehensive website of maritime heritage organizations, attractions, and activities in the Pacific Northwest. The blog highlights news, activities, and resources useful to the entire maritime heritage community. All views expressed are the author's own. Opposing views are welcome.

Great gift ideas at the new MHN Gift Shop!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

MOHAI An MH Stalwart, But Some Ask, "What About Its Other Activities?"

Seattle City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck has placed a maritime heritage theme at the top of his agenda for the future of South Lake Union Park (see previous post), and the Museum of History & Industry has a long history of supporting maritime heritage efforts. Just last week, MOHAI sent me two new listings for fall events related to maritime heritage, one a lecture on drawings by an officer on the USS Decatur in 1855. A MOHAI researcher, Lorraine McConaghy, has done extensive research in recent years on the Decatur, which participated in the brief Indian War that year. The other event is a lecture sponsored by the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society on the battleship Washington. (MOHAI hosts the PSMHS archives.) H.W. McCurdy, one of the founding lights of MOHAI, had strong ties to the maritime industry, though he was not supportive of the Save the Wawona campaign of the early 1960s, according to Kay Bullitt, dean of Seattle philanthropists and social activists.

The question over the emphasis on maritime heritage by MOHAI at SLUP may boil down to one of degree. Currently, MOHAI doesn't really have a theme to tie all its holdings together, beyond a "grandma's attic" strategy. There's nothing wrong with this, but people are wondering whether this is compatible with the community's expectations for a tightly focused maritime approach at SLUP. An anonymous commentator on this blog asks, "Will it be a Museum of (regional) History and Industry, a Museum of the History of Seattle, or a Museum of Northwest Maritime History?" MOHAI may need to answer this question before it gets full support from the maritime heritage community, and before it risks alienating its dedicated fan and membership base.

What's your view? Should MOHAI modify or clarify its thematic strategy? Or is that irrelevant to a move to South Lake Union Park?


Anonymous Nathaniel Howe said...

All these questions are important ones for MOHAI and the broader public to be considering right now. As our central record keeper of Seattle history, what MOHAI does at this juncture will likely have a lasting impact on the future of heritage in general in the Seattle area.
Hence why one of the hottest questions circulating around is "should MOHAI redefine some aspects of its focus or mission?"

If so, now is the perfect time to do so. The upcoming move creates a natural break in the course of the institution's history. Many museums have used such opportunities to update their mission statements or even change the title of the institution all together. Here in Stockholm for instance, a 'change of house' for the royal warship Vasa provided an opportunity for an institutional title change from The Wasa Shipyard to The Vasa Museum--even the spelling of the ship's name was updated.
Such title and mission changes without a 'change of house' generally get a cool reception from the public. It is often seen as a indicator of an institutional lack of direction whereas such changes at the time of a physical move such as MOHAI is about to undertake, tend to be viewed as signs of progress and renewal. That's just the way the business works; timing and image counts (especially for fundraising). Thus, from a PR stance, this is MOHAI's big chance if it wants to change anything.

As to whether or not MOHAI should refine its focus or develop some unifying theme that ties Seattle's history together, thereby escaping the dusty "Grandma's attic" approach that it and so many other historical museums are being criticized for, it can't hurt the museum's image and ability to 'reach out' and 'connect' with people. Indeed, a more focused exhibition approach addressing the inevitable "So what?" response from visitors would help the museum's effectiveness significantly. However, in reshaping the museum to become primarily an 'advocate for the visitor,'(focusing on teaching and engaging the public) rather than an archive and repository (dedicated to preserving the city's material heritage for future research, exhibition, and interpretation) runs the risk of severely disrupting the collection accession policy in tfavor of artifacts for 'popular' exhibits and thus possibly allowing valuable artifacts to slip through our fingers and be lost.

Returning to the earlier subject of mission change at MOHAI; if MOHAI modifies its mission, what direction should it go?
On the one hand, the move to a site and a facility that already hold such strong positions in the city's historical topography really seems to demand that the museum's future foci actively engage with the history of South Lake Union. After all, as Leonard Garfield of MOHAI described South Lake Union in an Aug 2005 Seattle Times article, "Metaphorically it's at the center of the city's heritage," citing the facts that David Denny built his first sawmill there and Bill Boeing started his first aircraft manufacturing plant there. Beyond that, those of us in the maritime heritage circles are well aware of the unparalleled role of South Lake Union in the region's maritime history from the fishing fleets and mothballed freighters to the impact of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and the South Lake Union Naval Reserve base. Even today, the shipyards and Kenmore Air speak volumes about the city's links to the maritime world. So perhaps the MOHAI that comes to the Armory building should be a New MOHAI, one with a new, more maritime focus.

On the other hand, MOHAI also has a responsibility to preserve so many other elements of Seattle's heritage from the timber industry and the 1962 World's Fair to the Alaska Gold Rush and the Seattle Pilots baseball team. Those are significant pieces of our heritage too--and are often ones that no other organization is striving to preserve. At least maritime heritage has its own community of supporters.
Moreover, the Armory building is not nearly as large as it appears and is somewhat limiting as a museum facility--particularly because it lacks a basement. That puts a real space crunch on a museum. The Museum of Flight practically has an entire underground city of offices and storage rooms to carry out its operations. Therefore, perhaps MOHAI will be forced to keep or even reduce its current exhibition and research foci, leaving no room for a new maritime focus.

So the issue is certainly not resolved here, nor was it intended to be. The debate is one we will all have to engage in, and one that hopefully MOHAI will make a concerted effort to engage the public in, if we as a community are to produce the sort of respected institution we can all be proud to see our collective heritage exhibited in at South Lake Union, at our city's "metaphorical" heart.

7:05 AM


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home