I went to three places to write about the new MOHAI: Montlake (the old MOHAI, in a state of ruin) and South Lake Union (shiny new MOHAI), of course—but also the fancy new secret private storage facility in Georgetown.
The only public area there is the small research library, holding MOHAI's four million photos. If you visit (by appointment), be sure to ask the photo historian to take you into the walk-in freezer for the negatives. He's proud of it, and it's like being in early James Bond.
Then there's the huge warehouse of rows and rows and stacks and stacks of storage, where they forbid me to take pictures of the scene for security reasons.
It's a clean, well-lighted place to the extreme—though the light is specially designed not to damage objects. In the closed wing that contains the textiles and fashions, from Victorian corsets to gay-pride wind-socks, the temperature is a shade cooler. In a corner of the main wing, near where canoes and race cars and buggies just hang out waiting for movement, there's a separate chamber where the temperature is micro-controlled for newly arrived objects that need to acclimate to their new hyper-refined-environment: a quarantine loading dock.
In the old MOHAI in Montlake, the conservation area was like a makeshift morgue. Note to friends and family: A morgue is bad enough. Please let me not end up in a makeshift one. It didn't even have doors and was in the basement. You have to imagine conservators, in plastic gloves and goggles trying to remove every speck of dirt from some old hunk of terra cotta, with janitors sweeping dustily by. It must have been ridiculous. The new conservation studio is an airlocked spaceship by comparison.
They showed me a couple of objects they've restored already. One of them is Bobo, who's not on display in the new MOHAI, but who, I can attest, has been given a nice new case for future display. It was very, very, very unnerving to come this close to Bobo's great dark unthumping chest when they were working on his box during one of my visits.
I could capture two pieces of restoration in decent photographs. One is a neon sign—who recalls spending all night at Bob Murray's Dog House? Anyone?
- This old neon sign is not on display in the new museum. Rather, it's in storage at MOHAI's new storage facility in Georgetown. It was restored to mint condition during the move so that it's ready for exhibition.
The other is a sign from Turf Smoke Shop. It's caked in nicotine, and it's a restoration conundrum. Should they remove the nicotine? It's historical, for sure. If this were a painting instead, they'd clean it, no questions asked. But on a smoking artifact, they're thinking about removing patches (!) of nicotine to reveal the contrast, a hybrid solution I like because it collapses multiple periods of time on one enduring surface (maybe my body can relate).
- The areas around the gloves and the muralist's signature have been cleaned. All else is left caked with nicotine.