Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI)

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 1/30/2002
  • Essay 3682
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Seattle's Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) first opened the doors of its building in the Montlake neighborhood to the public on February 15, 1952. The museum's early exhibits displayed artifacts, documents, and photographs collected by the Seattle Historical Society since the 1910s. MOHAI's exhibits evolved slowly during the museum’s first 25 years, but its growth and public outreach accelerated in the 1980s. By that time, the museum was already looking for a new home. After initially planning a relocation to downtown Seattle, MOHAI accepted an offer from the city of Seattle to take over the former Naval Reserve Armory on South Lake Union, where the city was developing Lake Union Park. In 2012, MOHAI moved into the Naval Reserve Building in the rapidly transforming South Lake Union neighborhood, substantially expanding the display space for its collections of photos, books, manuscripts, maps, and artifacts documenting Seattle's history.

Costumes and Chowder

The serious conservation and study of Seattle-area history began on November 13, 1911 -- the 60th anniversary of the landing of the Denny Party at Alki beach -- when pioneer contractor Morgan Carkeek (1847-1931) and his wife Emily (d. 1926) hosted a “Founder’s Day” ball at their First Hill mansion. Guests were asked to arrive in historic costumes, and she served chowder made with Puget Sound butter clams.

The party became an annual invitation-only event, and guests were encouraged to bring artifacts or documents related to early Seattle. This led to the incorporation of the Seattle Historical Society on January 8, 1914. Its founding trustees were Judge George Donworth, Judge C. H. Hanford, Judge R. B. Albertson, Lawrence J. Colman, University of Washington Professor Edmond S. Meany, and Margaret Lenora Denny. Articles of incorporation were signed by Emily Carkeek, Cannie Ford Trimble, Charlotte Haller McKee, Virginia McCarver Prosch, and Flora Thornton Prosser. The original society’s membership was limited to white settlers and their descendants.

The first two items donated to the society’s collection were a copy of Arthur Denny’s 1888 memoir Pioneer Days on Puget Sound, and Thomas Prosch’s biography of pioneers Dr. David S. and Catherine T. Maynard. Professor Meany gave the society use of a room at the University of Washington, and space in a fireproof room for storage.

Oh Give Me a Home

From the start, the organization looked for a permanent home for its growing collection. Potential sites included the Capitol Hill home of Horace C. Henry, and locations in the University of Washington's downtown Seattle "Metropolitan Tract," among other locations.

In 1919, the City of Seattle donated the city’s first fire bell to the organization. The 5,000-pound bell was hung at the city's original Carkeek Park, located near Sand Point on land donated by Morgan Carkeek. In 1926, the Carkeek Park on Lake Washington was acquired to become part of Sand Point Naval Air Station, and the money obtained went into the Vivian Carkeek Park Fund to be used for new park purchases. In 1928 the city council used the fund to purchase property on Puget Sound, then located north of the city limits and known as Piper's Canyon, which eventually became Seattle's present-day Carkeek Park. The fire bell was placed in storage.

Foundering Days

When Emily Carkeek died in 1926, the Founder’s Day fetes were suspended in her honor. The society nominated Morgan Carkeek to assume his wife’s post as president. Funds became so tight that when the society board voted to give $25 to the state’s Ezra Meeker Memorial, the minutes expressly noted that this was not to be regarded as a precedent for future occasions. Members of the society were also growing old, and new members were hard to come by. The group became less active.

After a year of inactivity, the society elected Vivian Carkeek, son of Morgan and Emily, as president. Two years later, the new Carkeek Park was dedicated in the Blue Ridge neighborhood north of Seattle with the hope it would become home to a history museum. Plans were discussed, but the lack of funding during the Depression era hindered any progress.

In 1935, the first Founder’s Day celebration since Emily Carkeek’s passing was held, this time in the home of Rolland Denny. Each member brought a guest. Mr. Denny was three months old when Seattle was founded, and the now 84-year-old gentleman cut the Seattle birthday cake, which held 84 candles.

On the Wings of an Angel

The organization began to attract new members, although most were still blue-blooded descendants of early Seattle gentry. It continued to look for a good location to build a museum, but was thwarted by one thing or another at every turn. Meanwhile, the society’s collection kept growing.

In 1938, Vivian Carkeek donated rare Blaine letters, written by the Blaine family to relatives back in New York. In 1942, Boeing donated its historic B-1 floatplane, once used by Eddie Hubbard to transport early airmail between Seattle and Canada. Three years later, a second Boeing gift would begin to turn the dream of a museum into a reality.

On March 13, 1945, Boeing announced that the firm would donate $50,000 toward the new museum’s aviation “wing,” in honor of its late president Philip Johnson, who had died the previous year. The money, placed in a trust, could be claimed within five years if a museum were built for no more than $200,000.

Open Arms

By this time, the society had begun examining a site near the Washington Park Arboretum, just off Montlake Avenue. The University of Washington, which operated the Arboretum on city park land, opposed the society’s plans, but it turned out that the eight-acre plot was actually owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dating back to the Lake Washington Ship Canal project. Over the next five years, Morgan and Emily Carkeek’s daughter Guendolen Plestcheef navigated the complicated political and bureaucratic process to have the surplus federal property transferred back to King County and then to the City of Seattle. Ultimately, the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department acquired the site and offered the society an inexpensive long-term lease for its new museum.

Meanwhile, the society began evolving from a private club into a more broadly based civic organization. Beginning in 1945, the annual Founder’s Day celebrations were transformed into public luncheons co-sponsored by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. More than 80 community and service organizations were invited to participate.

Such outreach efforts paid off. Membership grew to more than 1,000 by 1947, and donations of both cash and artifacts increased dramatically. To design a permanent historical museum, the society retained Seattle’s best known “modern” architect, Paul Thiry (1904-1993), later famed for planning the grounds of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and its “Coliseum,” now Key Arena. Despite this progress, the Society was losing its race with time to meet Boeing’s five-year deadline to raise the stipulated $200,000 for construction of a museum.

Spirit of Seattle

In 1949, with just a year left on the clock and only half the needed funds, the society turned for help to philanthropist and business leader Emil Sick (1894-1964), owner of Rainier Beer and his namesake stadium. Sick organized and chaired a “Spirit of Seattle Committee,” which promoted building fund “subscriptions” at $100 each. He and his committee took only a few months to raise $130,000 in one of the most successful money-raising campaigns the city had yet seen. Because of this, the new museum was formally named the Spirit of Seattle Memorial Building in honor of the committee’s amazing work.

Thiry completed his building plans by June 1950. Construction bids were taken, and the contract was awarded to the Kuney Johnson Company. It was hoped that the building could be completed by November 13, 1951, the centennial of the Denny Party landing, but construction delays pushed the opening to February 13, 1952, the anniversary of the first land claims in downtown Seattle.

Carkeek’s Dream Come True

When the long-awaited Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI for short) opened, Guendolen Carkeek Plestcheeff, president of the Seattle Historical Society, presented the building's key to the City of Seattle (which owns the land). Thus Plestcheeff honored her parents' dream of a local history museum.

Speakers at the event included E. L. Blaine, Emil Sick, Governor Arthur Langlie, and Mayor William Devin. Five-year-old Victoria Watt, great-great-granddaughter of Seattle founder Arthur A. Denny, cut a ribbon signaling the opening of the museum to patrons.

The museum’s first exhibits told of early settlers, the Alki landing, the founding of Seattle, and its growth from frontier port to a modern twentieth-century city. Highlights included Boeing history, the Great Seattle Fire, and an old cable car. The big fire bell from old Carkeek Park was finally put on display. Even as the museum opened, plans were underway for a maritime exhibit, donated by Horace W. McCurdy (1899-1989), who would soon became a controlling force at the museum for years to come.

Directors Cut

McCurdy was president of Puget Sound Bridge & Dredging Company, builders of the Lake Washington Floating Bridge. For the past 25 years, McCurdy had been collecting models, photos, and chunks of famous ships (which later provided the foundation for the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society). He was hoping to put them on display, and the new museum seemed the ideal venue. McCurdy would prove to be as imperious as he was generous in supporting local historical scholars and organizations.

McCurdy had joined the society a few years earlier and was on the board when the museum’s first director, Jerome Irving Smith, was chosen in 1951. Smith had spent the previous 18 years curating the prestigious Museum of the City of New York. Society matrons liked Smith, but “Mac” did not, and the marriage was annulled after a few months when MOHAI’s new director was arrested for propositioning a policeman in a bar. “Believe it or not, they had sent us a homo,” McCurdy still fumed a quarter of a century later (Argus, 1978). Smith was run out of town and a series of interim directors took his place, none of whom measured up to McCurdy’s standards.

McCurdy ended up championing Elizabeth Gustison (190?-1979) as director. She took the job and ruled with an iron hand for more than 25 years. Gustison had been working as a museum volunteer, and had no formal museum training or background in education. “I wanted a woman who looked like a woman,” said McCurdy, “That’s why I hired Mrs. Gustison” (Argus, 1978).

The Dead Circus

Through the 1950s, McCurdy and Gustison and their historical sensibilities effectively dictated museum exhibits and programs. A major maritime exhibit was installed in 1954, and a special maritime wing was dedicated in 1959, while other subjects and whole eras were ignored. For example, little information was collected on the Great Depression because, Mrs. Gustison told her staff, she wished to forget that period of American history (Argus, 1978).

In 1960, James Brinkley, a retired industrialist and big-game hunter, talked with McCurdy about his extensive collection of stuffed animals and animal heads (many of them specimens of endangered species). Their conversation resulted in Brinkley's offering to donate the “trophies” to the museum, even though they had nothing to do with Seattle history. He also ponied up $160,000 for the James Brinkley Natural History Wing, where the stuffed animals would be displayed. (Brinkley’s son James Jr. later chaired the MOHAI board.)

Press releases were sent out soliciting 70 more animal heads to fill out the collection just before the wing went public in 1962. When Woodland Park Zoo’s beloved gorilla Bobo died in 1968, he too was stuffed, and added to the exhibit, making him the only piece of Seattle history in what some would call “The Dead Circus.”

Montlake Rut

In 1963, the completion of Highway 520 forced the museum to move its entrance from the front of the building to the back. Work on the east-west R. H. Thomson Expressway would have completely encircled the museum if voters had not ultimately defeated it. Nevertheless, before it was cancelled, construction of the highway gave the museum plenty of fill dirt to expand their swampy parking lot.

Homeowners in the Shelby-Hamlin and Montlake neighborhoods were less than overjoyed. Too many cars were going down their quiet streets as it was. They fought museum expansion plans at every turn. The neighborhood eventually convinced the city to install concrete traffic dividers so that cars could only approach the museum by crossing a bridge over 520.

Some in the neighborhood hoped that the museum would move to a different location, but neither McCurdy nor Gustison were willing to raise federal or municipal money for such a move. Indeed, any time cash was needed for the museum, a small group of well-heeled patrons, including McCurdy himself, would open up their deep pockets in response. Thus, MOHAI turned inward and became an all-but-private playground for a select few as its membership dwindled from thousands to barely 600.

Seattle’s Attic

Despite the fact that the American Association of Museums had accredited MOHAI, by the late 1970s, a growing number of critics noted that the museum was not being run efficiently or professionally. Conservation and preservation methods fell short of accepted standards, and collections were being mishandled, and in some cases stolen. Staff members who tried to change things for the better were publicly humiliated and/or fired.

Robert Lussier was hired as curator in 1962 and kept a low profile. In 1976, he applied for bicentennial funding, which prompted Gustison, who did not like the idea of accountability that came with grant funding, to call him into her office. She gave him an hour to pack up and leave.

Charles Payton, the next curator hired by Gustison, was fresh out of college with a degree in anthropology. Over the next several years while he was working toward a master’s degree in museum studies, he attempted to improve collection care and exhibits with little help from Gustison. He resigned in disgust in October 1978. The next curator, Dr. Paul Spitzer, lasted six months before he quit too, stating, “I wasn’t a curator, I was a box boy in the attic” (Argus, 1978).

New Blood

By this time, the press got wind of the turmoil at the museum. Reports of MOHAI’s poor management of artifacts and documents led to public calls for reform and greater professionalism.

The Seattle Historical Society did some soul searching and made a few changes. A public relations firm was called in to smooth over the bad publicity, but found it difficult to do so with Gustison at the helm. Mrs. Gustison was asked to retire, and died soon after.

In 1980, the board tapped former broadcaster and Edmonds Community College head Dr. James Warren (b. 1925), for its next director. Warren, who had earned his doctorate in history at the University of Washington, moved MOHAI forward on the road to respectability, but there would be a few small bumps along the way.

Warren Peace

One of the first things Warren did as director was to open up more of the museum’s collections to the public. He reveled in showing off MOHAI’s basement and all of the wonderful items held within. Gustison had been a “marvelous collector,” but she hid most of the interesting pieces out of public sight. Along with this openness, Warren looked at bringing the exhibited displays up to a more modern standard. Provisions were made to bring “new blood” onto the board, and business plans were drawn up to establish professional objectives.

Warren also worked to increase funding, and within four years more than tripled the museum’s annual budget. Membership tripled along with it. He also increased staff salaries and provided medical insurance. During his tenure, the collections continued to grow. In 1983, the year MOHAI imposed its first admission fee, a massive infusion of rare and historic photographs enriched the collection. The museum purchased the Webster and Stevens collection through a generous gift from PEMCO, and acquired most of the ultimately 300,000 photographs donated by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

At the same time, MOHAI dismantled the embarrassing “dead circus,” and replaced it with exhibits focusing on Seattle history. (The public still loved Bobo so much that he was brought out of exile in 2000 and placed back on view.) Warren also wrote a weekly history article for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, began a publications program including Portage magazine, and reached out to ethnic communities, which had long been ignored by the society’s all-white leadership.

Too Much, Too Fast?

But many of these improvements did not sit well with some older staff and board members. Some couldn’t handle such quick changes after years of mom-and-pop management. There was an alarming turnover of staff, with widespread staff dissatisfaction with Warren’s methods.

Once again, the press reported the internal debate and maneuvers, which led Horace McCurdy to threaten staff and trustees who talked to the newspapers with removal. When asked how he could justify this heavy-handed injunction, the 83-year-old McCurdy responded, “I can do any damn thing I want to” (Seattle P-I, 1982).

Warren weathered the storm until his retirement in 1987. MOHAI went through a series of directors and interim directors, and the ever-growing collection continued to expand. The Black Heritage Society of Washington State now houses its collection within the museum’s walls, as does the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society. Probably the most significant accession was the massive collection of Seattle Post-Intelligencer press photos.

Setting a New Course

As Horace McCurdy’s influence waned, the board began to explore new waters. Not every venture succeeded; indeed expensive new exhibits and traveling shows nearly bankrupted MOHAI and led to the departure of director Reilly Rhodes in 1989. The museum recovered gradually under successors Wilson O’Donnell and Carl Lind. In 1995, Michael Herschensohn, founding director of the Seattle Children’s Theater, took the Museum’s helm. New staff such as Lorraine McConaghy expanded MOHAI’s educational and community outreach with “Nearby History” and other new programs.

But the war with the Montlake Community Club had taken its toll. The museum’s expansion plans were thwarted from the 1970s onward, and in the 1980s MOHAI started searching in earnest for a second campus. In 1997, the Washington State Convention & Trade Center offered to include MOHAI in its planned expansion north across Pike Street. In 2000, the museum purchased space in the expanded Washington State Convention & Trade Center (at 800 Pike Street) with the aim of relocating its primary exhibits and programs there, but as it turned out, MOHAI would move in a different direction.

Concurrent with MOHAI’s decision to relocate, Herschensohn left to take charge of the struggling Northwest Folk Festival in 1998. The board then hired Leonard Garfield, formerly of the Washington State Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, and director of the King County Office of Cultural Resources.

Garfield introduced new staff such as community relations director Feliks Banel and former Marymoor Museum director Karen Luetjen, while motivating veterans including photo archivist Howard Giske and librarian Carolyn Marr to imbue a new spirit of public service at MOHAI. The museum has sponsored major new exhibits such as “See it in the P-I,” featuring selected images from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer collection; Kenneth “Greg” Watson’s “Change of Worlds” exploration of Native American history; and McConaghy’s ambitious “Metropolis150” thematic survey of Seattle’s evolution since 1851. Garfield also encouraged new partnerships with community historical groups and provided crucial personal leadership in planning and executing the celebration of the Alki landing sesquicentennial in 2001.

A New Home

MOHAI had begun organizing a campaign to raise the $60 million needed to build out and occupy the Convention Center space when, in 2005, the Seattle Parks & Recreation Department offered it an alternative site, the former Naval Reserve Armory, as part of a new park in the South Lake Union neighborhood, then on the cusp of a transformation into a rapidly growing center of high-tech, bio-medical, and similar businesses. The museum sold its downtown space and began applying the capital campaign toward renovating the armory building.

In the midst of the fund-raising, the museum received a boost from the state, which paid MOHAI $45 million for the loss of the old building due to construction of a new span for the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge. These funds, along with $45 million raised by the museum -- which included a $10 million gift from founder Jeff Bezos -- paid for a retrofit to the armory, construction of new exhibits, and the transfer of the museum's archives to a separate facility in Georgetown.

In December 2012, nearly 20,000 people attended the opening of MOHAI's new South Lake Union home, whose 50,000 square feet expanded the museum's exhibition space by almost 10,000 square feet. Since then, the museum has welcomed countless new visitors -- and many old friends -- all seeking to experience fully and first-hand some of the many photos, books, manuscripts, maps, and artifacts documenting the community's past that have been assembled and cared for over the years by the Museum of History & Industry.


“The Women Build a Museum,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, April, 1952, pp. 158-169; “New Museum to be Opened Tomorrow Night,” The Seattle Times , February 14, 1952, p. 12; “You Can ’Go to Sea’ in Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, At the Newly Opened N. W. Nautical Display,” The Seattle Times , March 21, 1954, Magazine, p. 2; “Maritime Wing of Museum to be Dedicated Tuesday,” The Seattle Times , June 7, 1959, p. VI-2; “Industry Museum Wing Dedicated at Ceremony,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 10, 1959, p. 13; “Museum-Wing Donor Just ‘Wanted Place for Trophies’,” The Seattle Times , April 22, 1960, p. 2; “70 Animal Heads Needed for Museum,” The Seattle Times, December 20, 1961, p. 18; “Books from Seattle Surface in New York,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer , June 21, 1974, p. A3; “Museum’s Guiding Hand for 22 Years,” The Seattle Times , October 5, 1975, magazine, p. 5; “They Like the Museum, Except for the Cars,” The Seattle Times , January 22, 1977, p. A3; “Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry: Behind the Times,” Argus , November 3, 1978, pp. 1, 4-6, 12; “A Preserver of History for 25 Years,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer , December 22, 1978, p. B4; “MOHAI on the Move,” Argus , March 30, 1979, p. 6; “’Business as Usual’ at MOHAI,” Argus , April 27, 1979, p. 8; “Tour the Closets of there Past,” The Seattle Times , September 30, 1979, pp. M1, M6; “Museum-Wing Donor Just ‘Wanted Place for Trophies’,” The Seattle Times , April 22, 1960, p. 2; “The Little Museum that Suddenly Got Rich,” The Seattle Weekly , December 12, 1979, pp. 32-34; “Museum of History & Industry to Charge Fee,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer , May 24, 1983, p. A3; “Museum-Wing Donor Just ‘Wanted Place for Trophies’,” The Seattle Times , April 22, 1960, p. 2; “Museum Staff Demands Changes,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer , September 19, 1982, p. E1; “Don’t Talk to the Press, Museum Staff Told,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer , October 12, 1982, p. D3; “Museum of History and Industry: The Future of Seattle’s Past,” The Seattle Weekly , August 1, 1984, p. 35, 37-39; “New Director at MOHAI plans a New Image for the Museum,” The Seattle Times , May 17, 1987, p. L2; “Rocky Rhodes at MOHAI,” The Seattle Weekly , January 18, 1989, pp. 29-30; “MOHAI Matters,” The Seattle Weekly , January 25, 1989, pp. 3-4; “Horace McCurdy, Civic Leader Dies,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer , November 16, 1989, p. B6; “Museums Plane Better Displays – Of Themselves,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer , April 16, 1999, pp. B1-2; “New Head Sees Political Role for Museum of History and Industry,” The Seattle Times , May 13, 1999, pp. B1-B2; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle's Museum of History and Industry reopens in former Naval Reserve Armory on December 29, 2012" (by Alan J. Stein), (accessed May 11, 2015); "Carkeek Fund to be Center of Hot Fight in Council," The Seattle Times, August 3, 1928, p. 5; "Beach Purchase Incenses Taxpayers," Ibid., September 25, 1928, pp. 1, 9.
Note: This essay was corrected on March 13, 2007, and April 3, 2018, and updated on May 20, 2004, March 7, 2006, and May 11, 2015.

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