Exploring MOHAI: Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry

My daughter and I love to get outside and explore, no matter the weather. But there’s something to be said for an indoor day of fun — especially during the winter (or during the West Coast’s new ‘smoke season’.) MOHAI, Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, is a fun and interactive learning destination for kids and adults of all ages.

Located at the southern tip of Lake Union, MOHAI is housed in the historic Naval Reserve Armory Building. It moved to its current home in 2012 when its original Montlake building was demolished to make way for the expansion of the 520 freeway. The 50,000-square-foot space was built as a Works Progress Administration project in 1942 and was used for advanced naval training during World War II.

Its easternmost neighbor is the Center for Wooden Boats (another fun kid-friendly adventure). To its west is Kenmore Air, a Seattle seaplane airline that offers narrated seaplane tours that take off from and land on Lake Union (yet another thrilling kid-friendly activity).

The Grand Atrium

Mohai atrium

Walking into MOHAI’s Grand Atrium is an experience in and of itself. A Boeing B-1 hangs from the rafters, poised to land on Lake Union. The B-1 was one of the first seaplanes to call Lake Union home. It was used to ferry international mail from Seattle to Victoria, British Columbia — providing an essential communication gap between the growing metropolis and the booming frontier-esque town.

A 65-foot tall wooden installation soars from floor to ceiling, barnacle-like knobs covering its exterior. The wood was salvaged from an 1897 schooner built with locally harvested timber. An interior walkway curves through the spire. At its tip, you’ll find a skylight. And at the floor rests a window that peers down to the sculpture’s base, which extends into the waters of Lake Union.

lake window

On the opposite side of the atrium is the Rainier ‘R’. The 12-foot neon sign was once a prominent icon along the I-5 corridor. It marked the Old Rainier Brewery in the Industrial District. Today, it is part of an interactive display of Seattle icons. Each icon lights up and/or moves when you turn the corresponding crank below.

Exploration and Innovation Packs

One of the coolest things about MOHAI came as a surprise. The museum offers Exploration Packs geared for toddlers and Innovation packs geared for kids 6-10. These fun backpacks are free to check out from the guest services desk (where you will also check-in). 

This awesome perk isn’t something prominently mentioned on their website. But they come loaded with puzzles, books, scavenger hunt clues, dress-up supplies, and interactive discussion questions. If your toddler is anything like mine, just getting to wear the backpack will be a highlight. It really is amazing what tiny humans get excited about!

mohai interactive pack

Interactive Exhibits Make Learning Fun

MOHAI features a rich collection of artifacts and images cataloging Seattle’s development from wilderness into the bustling metropolis it is today. As one would expect, most of the items are housed securely, allowing you to look with your eyes and not with your hands. For a mom with a toddler who is still learning this principle, this is a fact for which I was grateful.

However, I was equally as grateful for how the museum was thoughtfully designed to incorporate interactive elements. Test your luck at a slot machine. Move a boat through the Ballard Locks. Add your own idea (or in our case scribble) to the WHAT IF project. 

fire display

The exhibits are also immersive. In The Seattle Journey, MOHAI’s award-winning deep dive into Seattle’s history from the 1790s to today, you’re transported into the 1889 fire. The fire ravaged the downtown, burning everything in its path and catapulting the city’s design forward as it was rebuilt one story above ground!

But fair warning, the fire-filled exhibit may be a bit scary for small kiddos. The dark room is primarily lit by red and orange flames that flicker and roar.

wall of gears

Kid’s Construction Zone Offers Freedom to Touch & Explore

On the third floor, the Kid’s Construction Zone offers a plethora of hands-on fun. No looking with your eyes and not with your hands here!

Building tools include woodblocks and soft-sided blocks. There are trucks and a wall full of gears. A large collection of legos are available for building. And for those who want a little more low-key fun, you can cuddle up with a book or peer out the windows at the lake.

Kids Can Captain Their Own Ship

The fourth floor of MOHAI houses the Maritime Exhibit and the best views of Lake Union. At the exhibit’s helm is a captain’s wheel, perfect for pretending to guide your own vessel out to the waters of Lake Union. 

Next to the wheel is an engine order telegraph that turns in a complete circle. It was used to communicate with the engine room, telling the boat operators how fast and in what direction the engine should go.

At the exhibit’s center is a submarine periscope. It’s from a World War II submarine and gives you a 360-degree view! 

captain's wheel
mohai exhibit

Free First Thursdays

Kids 14 and under are free every day with the purchase of an adult chaperone ticket ($22). But on the first Thursday of every month, admission is free to everyone! Depending on how often you plan to visit, a membership could also be the most cost-effective. In just three visits you’d be money ahead, plus the membership fee is tax-deductible. 

Parking at MOHAI 

MOHAI is located in Lake Union Park. There is no free parking near MOHAI, but there are a variety of paid lots. The closest lot is relatively small and fills up fast. 

However, there are a series of additional public lots that run the western edge of the lake nearby. They border Westlake Ave. and the Lake Union Loop, a heavily trafficked 6.4-mile path that loops around Lake Union. Reaching MOHAI from these lots is made easier by a footbridge that spans the lake’s lagoon located at the southeast corner. 

Mikaela Judd

Mikaela Judd is a lover of words, trail shoes and black coffee. Born and raised in the Seattle area, she and her family live nestled by the foothills in a small town an hour from the Emerald City. A freelance writer, Mikaela loves to hike, cook and explore new places. Blog: MikaelaJudd.com IG: @mikaelacjudd

1 Comment

  1. […] Boats offers free Sunday sailboat rides. I would first sign up for a boat ride then head to the MOHAI if you have to wait for the boating time. Like the Nordic Museum, the MOHAI offers a membership […]

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