(This post is by Leonard Garfield, executive director of the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI). He is responding to a recent request by Mayor Mike McGinn's office for MOHAI to help the city's ailing budget by turning over money MOHAI has negotiated with the state. — Eds)
First the bad news: MOHAI is going to be demolished. In 2012, Seattle’s regional history museum will close its doors to make way for the expansion of the 520 bridge. The museum's building in the Montlake neighborhood, paid for almost entirely with private funds, must be abandoned.
Now the good news: After three years of working together, MOHAI and the City reached an agreement last fall to save MOHAI, restore a historic landmark, and create a dramatic new experience for thousands of Seattle residents and students who want to understand the true history of our community.
Unfortunately, that plan is now in jeopardy.
A little history: In 2007, the City approached MOHAI about building a museum in the neglected Naval Reserve Armory at South Lake Union. MOHAI enthusiastically said yes. When the City said it had no funds for the project, MOHAI said no problem. Our strategy? We launched a capital campaign. And we carefully negotiated with the State so that the loss of the current museum would be fairly compensated.
The City supported this plan, adopting an ordinance in 2009, knowing that with private fundraising and fair compensation, the new museum project would succeed without additional City funds. Now with compensation from the State, and a campaign underway, the $85 million project is poised to achieve its goal. The Washington State Department of Transportation agreed to give us $40 million for the building and is estimated to provide an other $7 million for the land.
But now the Mayor’s office wants to change our agreement, placing MOHAI’s future at risk.
In a letter to MOHAI, the Mayor’s legal counsel argues that compensation to MOHAI could be better used for other purposes.
Problem is, the State’s compensation is expressly intended to mitigate MOHAI’s very real loss—the demolition of an institution and the imminent displacement of all its functions—and is critical if MOHAI is to rebuild. The money can’t be transferred elsewhere no matter how worthy the cause or great the need. The money will be used only to replace functions and facilities lost at MOHAI’s current home, including galleries, artifact storage, a research library, offices, classrooms and more.
Everything else that will make the new MOHAI thrive—an endowment, operating reserves, and entirely new educational programs—will come from funds raised by MOHAI’s capital campaign.
But here’s the real reason the project needs to happen:
For 58 years, MOHAI has served as an integral part of the community, connecting us with who we are and where we’ve been. MOHAI worked with Japanese American activists to tell the story of the internment—the first museum in America to do so. MOHAI is home to the collections of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State. We have saved landmark icons of gay Seattle (do you remember Shelley’s Leg?) and bawdy Seattle (come peep at the Lusty Lady in her new home). We work with the Duwamish Tribe to remind us that Seattle’s First People are still here. We have preserved Starbucks’ first sign, Boeing’s first commercial plane, and four million historic photographs. Want to see for yourself? Come check us out this Free First Thursday.
The future of MOHAI at Lake Union Park is even more exciting, but it’s threatened if the project doesn’t proceed and we can’t get out of the way of 520. The time has come to move forward or place the future of MOHAI in question. The City must respect agreements already reached if MOHAI is to re-open at Lake Union Park before bulldozers arrive at our doorstep and MOHAI itself becomes history.