MOHAI celebrates 10 years with a look at Seattle’s complicated recent history

Nov 30, 2022, 12:51 PM | Updated: 1:54 pm
MOHAI opened at the old armory at Lake Union Park on December 29, 2012. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)
(Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) is celebrating 10 years at its Lake Union Park home. To mark the occasion, they’re looking back at the past decade of Seattle’s history.

KIRO Newsradio caught up with MOHAI director Leonard Garfield for his thoughts about the most significant events, and what the future may bring.

MOHAI’s original home in Montlake was a destination for families and school groups for decades, from its debut in 1952 until well into the 21st century. The State Route 520 expansion and the museum’s own ambitions meant relocating and reinventing the popular local institution with a grand opening on Dec. 29, 2012, in South Lake Union. While families and school groups are still a big part of the audience at the more recent MOHAI, the move to the old armory ten years ago was a huge leap forward for Seattle history and the entire community.

In honor of the tenth anniversary, MOHAI is inviting the public to a free special event all day Thursday, Dec. 1, with access to most of the exhibits along with a series of special programs.

Garfield, who became MOHAI’s director in 1999 and who led the relocation and reinvention effort, will be giving two illustrated talks.

At 1 p.m., the topic is “Icons of Seattle’s Past: Images from the MOHAI Collection,” followed at 5 p.m. by “Seattle History-in-the-Making: Landmark Events from the Past Ten Years.”

In a conversation earlier this week, Garfield told KIRO Newsradio that accurate interpretation of recent history is always tricky, because it often takes years – if not decades – to really understand and appreciate the long-term effects of historic events, both positive and negative.

Obviously, the immediate effects of the pandemic and the social protests of just the past three years loom pretty large right now, and it’s probably accurate to say they will continue to do so for a long time.

And Garfield says it was those events and other recent challenges that got him thinking about MOHAI’s current main local history exhibit, which dates to when the museum was new ten years ago.

That exhibit is called “True Northwest,” and the recent past has given MOHAI staff some new perspective on how best to tell a city’s history in a museum setting – given what we’ve all been through lately.

That current exhibit “perceives a through-line that basically sees the city getting better, stronger, more diverse, more inclusive in a very positive way as you march through the chronology, and then it ends ten years ago,” Garfield said.

“I used to personally always think that history was constant progress towards getting better, if you will, but I think the last ten years remind us that there are setbacks. And I think in a global way, the pandemic obviously was a huge setback.”

Even before the pandemic, Garfield says Seattle was already facing other challenges that defined local history in the past decade.

“I think locally having a less coherent political structure has [also] been a setback,” Garfield continued.

He was diplomatically describing mayoral and city council politics that saw outsiders like Mayor Mike McGinn and insiders like Mayor Jenny Durkan struggle, as well as the abrupt departure of Mayor Ed Murray, and the tumultuous tenure of Councilmember Kshama Sawant.

One place where that “less coherent political structure” in Seattle has had an impact is downtown, especially compared with the 1990s.

“Thirty years ago, we focused on the reinvention of downtown,” Garfield said. “I think in the last ten years we’ve seen another reinvention of downtown, but not planned.

“That would be the sort of hollowing out of the retail core, the increase in residences, with the declining businesses,” Garfield continued.

“This is another big story, the whole impact of the pandemic and remote work. Downtown now is really struggling to continue to be the centerpiece of the region economically and culturally.”

What makes Seattle history of the past decade really complicated is that many of the challenges stem from the great success efforts stretching back to the 19th century.

Garfield says that at the root of much of the change and the struggle has been Seattle’s ability, sometimes in spite of itself, to continue to attract visitors, new residents, and entrepreneurs – which is something the non-Indigenous founders of the city set out to do way back in 1851.

However, Garfield says, the influx has been so intense recently as to change the very nature of the “civic conversation” required to keep any big city navigating toward the future.

“I think the dominant force of the last 10 years really was the influx of new people, primarily to enter the tech economy, and the growth of the companies in that economy to dominate the community conversation,” Garfield said.

“Because of that, I think there was less of the kind of inclusive civic engagement that Seattle was famous for and justifiably proud of – that over many, many decades, you have new people coming in with new ideas, culturally, civically, broad-based engagement and community life.”

That decade of growth shifted the civic dialog, Garfield says.

“I think what we see is a community now that was very, very hyper-focused on business,” Garfield continued.

“Business was putting a huge imprint on not just Seattle, but the whole region, and that became increasingly separated from the cultural infrastructure, from the political infrastructure – so that you actually ended up in recent years, politics was having one conversation and the business community was having a completely different conversation.”

Garfield points to debates about the so-called “Amazon tax” and about changes in policing following the social protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd as issues where it seemed there was little common ground, let alone common understanding of the issues being debated.

Part of this, Garfield says, is because the Seattle business community is different now than in the past due to its global focus – that in the past decade Seattle “amass[ed] a center of gravity for global technology.”

And with this reality, it seems that something has shifted about how global businesses regard their hometowns, circa 2022.

Seattle was a Boeing town for decades, of course, with its headquarters here (until it wasn’t), but also with all of its jetliner manufacturing taking place exclusively in Renton and Everett (until it didn’t).

Tech companies generally don’t have sprawling manufacturing plants. They have shrinking office footprints, as well. All that combined with the remote work of the pandemic, perhaps they just don’t have the same affinity for their hometowns.

Garfield says he’s not sure how many people outside of Seattle know or care that Microsoft, Starbucks, and Amazon are based here. While those companies and many others from “big tech” have a great impact here – good and bad – their focus is elsewhere.

“Their playpen is the world, it’s not the community,” Garfield said. “I wonder if that has created a sense where our most important products now in our most important local institutions really aren’t connected as closely to our day-to-day as they are to the global scene.”

Garfield continued, “It’s one thing when Starbucks has 17 stores and 15 of them are in Seattle. It’s another when they have 17,000 stores and 15 of them are in Seattle. It’s a different story.”

Seattle isn’t alone in the challenges it’s faced in the past decade.

The scarcity of affordable housing for non-tech sector families, seemingly intractable issues around helping the unhoused, and the increasing cost of living for everyone are factors in other West Coast cities, including Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

In Seattle, one element in the city’s recent past is what feels like an absence of narratives about influential figures or organizations in the cultural sector who call Seattle home and who wield a kind of “soft power” over the larger national or even international cultural dialog.

In previous decades, musicians, authors, theatre professionals, fashion designers, and others helped put Seattle on the map and their association with the city and the region helped promote the city as a brand, if not a product.

While the narratives may be absent, it could be that the next generation of influential figures is more narrowly focused and more segmented in how that influence reaches others via social media and other digital platforms.

Seattle’s recent history – and Garfield’s presentation – isn’t only about setbacks or challenges.

Garfield says there’s plenty to celebrate in the past decade including the ongoing reinvention of the waterfront, the release of the Seattle Kraken, the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl, the rise of women’s professional sports, and continued leadership in philanthropy from those elder statesmen of local tech like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.

Looking ahead, Garfield does see encouraging signs for Seattle’s future.

“We continue to be a place that both attracts and retains young people, and that energy, that creativity is what’s really propelled Seattle for hundreds of years,” Garfield said. “And I think that’s a trait that the city will continue to hold onto.

“That’s what’s really going to shape our future.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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MOHAI celebrates 10 years with a look at Seattle’s complicated recent history