Seattle’s symbol is the Space Needle, an optimistic testament to future possibilities and progress, but that doesn’t mean it’s a town that forgets its past. From a wide range of historically focused museums to walking tours and costumed lectures, history buffs can find many resources to stay connected to the past.
Museums – not surprisingly – are an excellent place to start. Almost all museums function as keepers of some kind of historical record, if only of the kind of art they focus on, but Seattle has some that are especially great resources for learning more about the region.
The Museum of History and Industry (commonly referred to as MOHAI) is focused on the history of Seattle in particular and the Puget Sound region more generally. It features permanent exhibits on maritime Seattle, Seattle-based innovations, and Seattle’s “long and bumpy journey from wilderness to world city.” MOHAI also offers frequent history workshops on subjects like caring for personal photographs, historical research, and oral history. MOHAI partners with public television KCTS 9 and the Seattle Public Library for free monthly History Cafes on topics like Seattle baseball, the library’s historic restaurant menu collection, Pike Place Market and others.
The Burke Museum is a natural history museum, offering a look into the artifacts and handicrafts of the native people of the region. The Wing Luke Museum is focused on the Asian Pacific American experience, and the Northwest African American Museum “serves to present and preserve the connections between the Pacific Northwest and people of African descent.” The Nordic Heritage Museum offers a look into the culture of Seattle’s Nordic immigrants. All of these museums offer periodic public workshops and programs, but the Wing Luke and Nordic Heritage’s calendars are probably the best spots to find regular family craft or cooking workshops for those who want a hands-on cultural experience.
Going from man to machine, to learn more about Seattle’s connection to the aviation industry, there’s the Museum of Flight in the south end. In November 2012, the Museum of Flight received the NASA Shuttle Trainer. At the time, this came on the heels of the disappointment that Seattle lost out to Los Angeles in receiving the actual Space Shuttle Endeavor for display. However, the Endeavor is a hands-off exhibit, whereas tickets to the Trainer give one access to the Crew Compartment (good for ages 11 and up), so Seattleites might be justified in feeling like everything worked out just fine for the city.
The national park system is typically thought of as a protector of wild spaces, but there are also historical parks within the system, and one is in Seattle itself. The Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park is located right in the heart of Seattle’s Pioneer Square and preserves the history of Seattle’s role in the nineteenth century gold rush. Year-round, the park features videos about the rush, and rotating exhibits on historical topics, even those not specifically related to the Gold Rush, like a look at the Japanese-American community on Bainbridge Island. From May to September, there are daily free programs, including gold panning demonstrations, and guided walks around the Pioneer Square area.
While in Pioneer Square, consider taking the Underground Tour. “Underground’ is no figure of speech: the tour takes you through the actual subterranean halls that used to be the roads and first floors of downtown Seattle, and offers lighthearted but detailed insight into the sometimes questionable origins of the Emerald City.
For another interactive tour experience, the website HistoryLink.org (an online encyclopedia of Washington State history) has a collection of printable walking tours covering historic neighborhoods like Pioneer Square, Ballard, and Columbia City. Not every cybertour on their site has a printable walking tour associated with it, but one can save the virtual ones for inclement weather days.
Of special note with the walking tours: when taking the International District tour, make a stop at the café in the Panama Hotel. The café has Plexiglas panels in the floor where one can see a basement full of items Seattle’s Japanese and Japanese-American population had to abandon during the internment period of World War II. Consider accompanying the visit with reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Author Jamie Ford has lived in Seattle, and set this historic novel here during the time of Japanese internment.
For subjects beyond Seattle’s own history, local lecturer Tames Alan brings a unique perspective. Tames has a range of historical topics, like a costumed program on the suffragette movement, a look at the history of spices and New World food, and talks on the world represented in the wildly popular Downton Abbey series. For her Downton-inspired “Trial by Fork” talk, Tames breaks out the good china, providing the audience with a live view of exactly what kind of serious silverware one might face at a Downton dinner. Tames speaks often at local libraries around the Sound and her website lists upcoming dates and locations.
If one’s interest in history is personal, the Seattle Public Library offers regular free classes in genealogical research, periodic tours of the Central Library’s Genealogy Collection, and is staffed by two full-time genealogy librarians. The collection “houses more than 40,000 items dealing primarily with records and families of North America - including those from the original 13 colonies, the Old Northwest Territory and from states referred to as ‘Gateways to the West.’"