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.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

MOHAI Turns Out Support; What MH Orgs Should Do Next

More than a dozen maritime heritage supporters and organizations, including Northwest Seaport, the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, and the Steamer Virginia V Foundation, spoke in favor today of a proposal by the Museum of History & Industry to move to South Lake Union Park. MOHAI presented an outline of its plan to the city council's Parks, Parks, Education, Libraries and Labor Committee, chaired by Councilmember David Della. The council must give permission for the mayor to pursue negotiations with MOHAI. No decision was made at today's meeting.

According to a memo from the Parks Department to the committee, MOHAI would completely renovate the Naval Reserve Building in 2009 at a cost of $26 million, and it would spend another $13 million on museum exhibits. The memo said the renovation would be a "city-funded and managed project," with MOHAI "contributing" to the project. MOHAI would finance the exhibit upgrades.

The memo goes on to say that the NRB would be MOHAI's "primary public venue," which would give "special attention to our rich maritime heritage." The memo acknowledges MOHAI's obligation to pay the city $1 million plus interest for abandoning plans to build a new museum on property near the Washington State Trade and Convention Center. Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck says the city will not "write that obligation off."

The maritime heritage organizations and supporters all called on the council to allow negotiations to move forward, though some said they expected the new facility to place heavy emphasis on maritime history. Several large historic vessels are now moored at South Lake Union Park, and MOHAI and Northwest Seaport are working on a plan to display the historic schooner Wawona on land at the park.

Maritime heritage organizations are excited about the potential of a MOHAI move to SLUP. They should recognize that they are equal partners with MOHAI in developing a facility that ranks with Mystic Seaport and other world-class maritime museums. They deserve a seat at the table once MOHAI and the city agree on terms for the NRB renovation. The MH orgs are not only tenants in the NRB, but they own the key assets, namely the ships, that will draw the biggest crowds. MOHAI and the MH orgs now need each other more than ever.

What do you think? What's the next step for maritime heritage supporters in this process?


Anonymous PMac said...

I remain skeptical. As a respondent to my previous post suggested, I did email MOHAI yesterday to get some of their point of view on the move to the Armory rather than 800 Pike, as I learned they're called. (You can see my lack of inside knowledge on the subject.) Feliks Banel was prompt and thoughtful in his responses, and I certainly appreciated that. I thought he had some good points to make, and I now know more than I had known before.

Joe, I heard your comments in support on KUOW this morning.

But, especially with your reference to Mystic Seaport, I must express more and more skepticism. I know Mystic Seaport well -- I studied there, I worked there, I have given papers at conferences there, I went back to the Sea Music Festival two months ago -- shoot, I even got married there. So I know that place. And that place does not present the history of SE Connecticut, it presents the history of "America and the Sea".

If MOHAI decides to tell not the story of Seattle and King County, but the story of the maritime Pac NW, then I'm cool with it. (Though I think they'll be out of room in no time flat.) But if MOHAI remains MOHAI, and tells maritime stories in addition to its stories of Seattle and King County, then it won't work.

I would also point out to the city that one reason why MSM succeeds, despite its many challenges, is because people can board vessels there. I was struck when I visited the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool a decade ago since they have no boats actually in the water there. If the city forces NWSeaport to scrap the Wawona, it'll be a huge loss in becoming a west coast Mystic Seaport. (What are MOHAI's views on the Wawona, anyway?)

Gotta run but I'd like to add more comments later. I care a lot about this.

9:36 AM

Blogger Joe Follansbee said...

Thanks much for the comments! Just to clarify, my reference to Mystic Seaport was in hopes of offering a model for what South Lake Union Park ought to be. During my visit there a couple of years ago, I was deeply impressed by the "living history" programming, with actors playing the roles of period seafarers. (I even got into a fun "argument" over the performance in office of President U.S. Grant!) And the ability to get near the craftspeople working on restoration projects, as well as boarding vessels, was breathtaking.

If you ask the city about this, they say, "No way! We're not doing any of that stuff in our park!" I'm hoping MOHAI can knock some sense into the city and demonstrate the incredible potential for creating a Mystic Seaport-like educational attraction focused on the Pacific Northwest. And you know, I wouldn't mind at all if they expanded a "living history" piece to include logging, early aircraft manufacture, and so on. Let's do everything!

11:35 AM

Anonymous PMac said...

I totally agree that something at South Lake Union should emulate Mystic Seaport. They do a ton of great things very well. It would be ideal. And I realize you're just tossing that out as an ideal goal that we should work toward.

I guess my thing is that I don't think that's what MOHAI will or should work toward. MOHAI should talk about Seattle and King County. It should talk about JP Patches and the Rainier Beer ads and Sick's Stadium and logging on Mercer Island and that hat store downtown and the region's environmentalism and the spotted owl controversies and eco-terrorism in the Northwest and the life of a tugboatman and the art of regional native Americans and the life and impact of Dorothy Bullitt and the Pig Wars and the Stanley Cup in Seattle and the history of Foss Tugboats and Bobo the gorilla and Kenny G and a million other interesting stories about the Puget Sound.

A maritime history museum at South Lake Union should tell stories about reasons for creating the Locks (beyond just creating larger lawns for Lake Washington waterfront homes) and Jim McCurdy and being a day or more closer by ship to Asia than southern California and Ben Seborn and the exploration of the Pacific Northwest by Vancouver and Gray and the US Ex Ex in this region and Seafair and the Mosquito Fleet and boarding the Wawona and the failure of the city to save the Kalakala and boarding the Lightship and watching (and helping) native Americans build canoes and talking with someone roleplaying Arthur Denny or a 19th century coastal trader and salmon fishing in the northwest and the impact of the Jones Act and whaling out of the northwest and the growth of the port of Tacoma (or Everett!) and the role of the Navy in the region a million other interesting stories about the region's maritime history.

I agree that MOHAI could tell good stories about lots more than just maritime history. But I don't think MOHAI can do both at Lake Union.

I'm all for watching what happens -- I guess something is better than nothing -- and I recognize that others are doing the work; I'm just sitting here criticizing. I just wish we'd really, truly, take this opportunity to tell the stories of the Pacific Northwest's maritime heritage and history. I hope that if MOHAI moves to South Lake Union, they do that with a vengeance.

5:06 PM

Blogger Joe Follansbee said...

I think we're agreeing more than disagreeing. I would like to see exactly the same thing you're suggesting in terms of subject matter, but it probably can't all happen at once at SLUP. It's not big enough, and a museum that tries to do everything at once is unlikely to do anything well.

All I'm saying is that whatever MOHAI does at SLUP should be several orders of magnitude better than what it does now, at least in the case of local maritime history, and it can accomplish that in partnership with the maritime heritage groups. Mystic Seaport is but one model to follow. (Having said that, they are suffering from lower traffic and budget problems these days, so maybe they're not the best model after all.)

I'd suggest watching the video of the MOHAI presentation. (See today's post for links.) One of the presenters, whom I believe is a MOHAI trustee, said that this move is an opportunity for MOHAI to re-evaluate its whole programming philosophy. That's a good thing, and discussions like this one and intelligent criticism like yours moves us forward. I just want whatever happens at SLUP to take full advantage of the opportunity.

7:13 PM

Anonymous Nathaniel Howe said...

This question of Mystic Seaport as a role model for Seattle really is a good one worth considering. I am glad it came up again. Discussion about whether Seattle should build a West Coast Mystic Seaport has been bouncing around in the maritime heritage community for years. I suspect that was the idea behind Northwest Seaport as it stands today, complete with a cluster of little buildings housing sail lofts, forges, and rigging stores.

In terms of stature as a capable and respected institution, of course Seattle should strive to be comparable to Mystic Seaport. Many of us in the PNW feel our maritime heritage is certainly worth such attention and effort. I believe this is what Joe was getting at.
But how we go about that, what kind of 'maritime heritage center' (a very broad and vague utilitarian term) we build as a community to achieve that stature, is really a separate question.

This is a distinction that needs to be made in the current debate; aiming to achieve the reputation of Mystic Seaport versus aiming to achieve the appearance and design of Mystic Seaport.

If we separate these two issues from the broader 'follow Mystic' debate, we will more than likely find ourselves agreeing on a great many things.

I have also had the priviledge of getting to know Mystic Seaport very well. I studied and lived at the seaport as well. Combining that experience at Mystic with my involvement in the SLU debate and my current research here in Scandinavia, I would say that Mystic seaport is an interesting case study, but not necessarily a role model. We can, however, certainly look to Mystic for countless examples of both do's and don't's.

Turning to the latter question within the 'follow Mystic?' debate
--do we want to build a West Coast Mystic Seaport Village?--, Seattle certainly has the potential. An idealized reconstruction of an 1890s or 1920s Puget Sound maritime town would certainly have its appeal; a sawmill with its sawmill town of small houses and general stores, a waterfront jammed with classic NW trollers, trawlers, longliners, and purse-seiners, ships like Wawona and Lightship #83 and a shipyard to maintain them. Then a cedar longhouse standing over a section of natural beach harboring a variety of native canoes. And all of this would be 'living' of course. The sawmill would be whirring and reducing logs into fine lumber for the shipyard, the general stores would be open and selling nick-knacks, the canoes taking visitors out on the water, and the shipyard scattering wood chips all over. It is an attractive image. The potential is definitely there.

But there are a lot of practical barriers. For one, such a vision could never materialize at South Lake Union. The city has already declared its opposition to any such thing on its grounds, there is already an ordinance prohibiting any real shipyard activity at SLUP, and honestly, SLUP is just too small.

Mystic Seaport has 17 acres of land for its seaport--and has nothing the size of a sawmill (a 'must' for a West Coast 'Mystic').

What about preservation and longevity of outdoor exhibitions in Seattle. Mystic is saved from rot and mold by cold, harsh winters whereas in Seattle, outdoor collections really suffer a lot more from winter rains. Seattle's weather would also minimize the attractiveness of an outdoor, living museum. Sure, it might be an accurate presentation of a coastal town if there is water trickling from the gutter pipes all the time, but it doesn't bring in visitors (Granted, Mystic survives despite long, cold winters when almost nobody comes to the museum).

However, the greatest obstacle is the prohibition against a shipyard. Maritime museums all over the world are realizing that owning a large, historic, wooden vessel requires ownership of a shipyard as well. Not just because the maintenance work is inevitable, but rather because commercial yards are simply too expensive; the work must be done in-house. This is one of the greatest lessons Mystic Seaport has to teach other maritime museums around the globe. Having their own shipyard has saved them millions in the long term.

A perpetual problem, however, is how to finance these shipyards. The museum must be able to not only pay for the materials, but also give full-time employment to shipwrights who specialize in wood construction. That's a major cost.

A variety of approaches are being taken by different museums to handle this. Mystic has a large enough collection (and so would Seattle) to keep a full-time staff busy year-round and has the funding to pay for it. Other museums that cannot afford to keep shipwrights on the pay-roll year round have found other solutions. Some have special deals with local commercial yards, but the most ingenious answer I have found is at the Frigate Jylland museum in Denmark. There, the administrators--recognizing that they needed their own shipyard to make maintenenace affordable but could not keep the shipwrights busy year round--have opted for a semi-autonomous shipyard arrangement using their facilities but managed by an independent shipyard firm that can also take in external jobs to keep its shipwrights on the pay-roll. It is a brilliant solution and works very well to stabilize costs (For photos and detail on the Jylland project, see my blog, Magellan i Sverige. Joe has placed a link to it on the MHN blog).

So this brings us back to MOHAI. Can MOHAI do any of this? The answer is esentially no. SLUP has too many restrictions and practical barriers and the museum still has many other demanding responsibilities. As pmac mentioned, MOHAI needs to tell Seattle's other precious stories. Expanding MOHAI's coverage of maritime history really cannot go beyond the methods the museum currently employs, i.e. photos, small artifacts, and indoor exhibits. Caring for a wooden vessel--much less 5 or 10 of them (more examples of NW fishing boats must be preserved)--is a pursuit that requires 100% of an institution's resources--in finances, staff time, market visibility etc.
In short, floating collections are simply too demanding to be anything less than 'The' primary focus of the institution.

But just because MOHAI can't be a Mystic Seaport in physical terms (God willing, its move to a central location at SLUP will get it the reputational stature of Mystic) does not mean that hope for a West Coast Mystic Seaport living history museum is lost.
It could be done elsewhere, say on the Duwamish or even the ship canal where land is rapidly becoming availble as shipyards and fishpackers close down.

So, perhaps the next question we all need to consider is whether we even want to build a 'West Coast Mystic Seaport'. Would we rather create a new maritime museum concept of our own? Or maybe use some other paradigm, say, like the Frigate Jylland project?

1:25 AM

Blogger Joe Follansbee said...

I'm posting this on behalf of Alice Winship, a lead volunteer for Northwest Seaport. Opinions are her own.

While this is not the strictly maritime museum that we have been urging for the Armory Building, we are assured that it will be a major museum with a strong maritime emphasis, and MOHAI seems to have the capacity to actually make it happen. This seems to be an opportunity to move in the
direction we want to go, towards a world-class maritime facility at South Lake Union. MOHAI seems enthusiastic about working with the existing maritime heritage organizations and the vessels at the Historic Ships Wharf. More clarification is needed to confirm how all the existing organizations and historic vessels will fit into the picture. Some from the maritime heritage community feel that MOHAI should have a secondary site near South Lake Union for non-maritime displays. This doesn’t seem to be a part of the current proposal, although there is
recognition that the building is small considering all the lofty goals expressed for it. My feeling is that we should go forward with support of MOHAI at South Lake Union, with the awareness that heritage will need
more expansion in the future.

A side note: MOHAI has a need in common with other organizations, for off-site offices and storage, and a stated desire to explore synergistic relations with other heritage organizations. Maybe we should raise the question of a shared facility near South Lake Union for offices and storage.

6:53 AM

Anonymous PMac said...

Well, I think Nathaniel's post makes a lot of good comments. A followup confirmed that he and I both did the same undergraduate program at Mystic Seaport, though a dozen years apart. He argues: 1) a true Seaport-like facility requires a shipyard. 2) there's no room for a shipyard near the Armory. 3) there are other places for a shipyard.

Sounds like we're talking about two new museums now!

But, actually, didn't the proposal from 4Culture suggest using the old Metro site next to Gas Works as a shipyard? Couldn't this proposal be expanded just a bit, to include that shipyard? While it's been a while since I read the report, I was struck by the idea there, somewhat similar to what Nathaniel proposed, that a shipyard at the Metro site include services beyond just those required by the museum. My brother has a Sierra 24 that could use some serious attention. South Seattle Comm College (I think) is training shipwrights, correct? This would be another great place to bring them together, in addition to working on those items needed by the museum.

Get people out on the water by taking them between the two sites on old fishing boats that the museum has restored and preserved. You'd always have people working on vessels at the shipyard, and always have exhibits at the museum. There'd always be something for people to see. I could definitely see that working.

Joe, I agree that we agree far more than we disagree. In fact, I'm not sure I disagree that much at all; I'm just skeptical about the chances for success. Your point about trying to do too much, and as a result doing nothing well, is very well taken. And, in fact, perhaps that's the rub: if MOHAI moves to SLUP, what will they decide to do? If I knew what kind of a museum MOHAI wants to become -- what their vision and their mission statement will say -- then I'd feel a whole lot better.

9:55 AM

Blogger Joe Follansbee said...

Pmac, regarding your comment on shipyard space, 4Culture is working on a proposal with Coastal Heritage Alliance to turn the Metro Dock into a maintenance and restoration facility for historic vessels. The parties are hoping for some sort of deal by the end of the year. If that goes through, and MOHAI is able to develop a strong maritime heritage facility at SLUP, we'd have TWO first-class maritime heritage facilities on Lake Union. Imagine!

10:13 AM

Blogger isaacada1 said...

These are some great comments here. I see though that they haven't been updated in quite some time. Besides the Mystic Seaport Museum, what other maritime museums across the globe do we want to emulate? The San Diego Maritime Museum, Mariners Museum, the new one being built in Pensacola?

I for one would like MOHAI not to move into the facilities at South Lake Union. However, I AM in favor of MOHAI donating some of it's collection and resources to being located at the new venue. I would also like the Coast Guard and Odyssey Museums on the Seattle waterfront to change their venues and move to SLUT. I believe concentrating all the maritime resources in the city into one location would be a far greater thing for the city well into the future.

10:17 AM


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