A Career of Innovation at MOHAI
A longtime photography curator shares his story.
Wandering the halls of Hotel Theodore, you’ll notice that there are dozens of rare, historic photographs and artifacts throughout our downtown Seattle hotel. That’s thanks to our partnership with Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, which helped curate our collection. One of the key players of that partnership is Howard Giske, MOHAI’s Curator of Photography.
Born and raised in Seattle, Giske fell in love with photography as a kid, and soon looked for ways to turn his hobby into a job. He became a freelance photojournalist and then left town to work at large-scale publishers. A few years later, he came back and found a temporary photography position at MOHAI, creating darkrooms to preserve original photos and also to provide photo services for contemporary works. “I turned the temp position into a necessity” he says. “I outlived the two year grant and stayed with it and really haven't looked back since.”
And now, after 37 years at MOHAI, Giske has just retired. “The museum’s grown around me and with me,” he explains. “It’s been a great place to work, but I’m ready for a little change.”
Back from his first vacation as a retiree—he and his wife did a two-week trip to Victoria, British Columbia—we caught up with the curator about his experiences at MOHAI, his hometown love, and some of his favorite discoveries of Seattle innovations.
How did working at MOHAI affect your understanding of Seattle’s history?
My interest in history grew the more I worked with the historic photographs. You just can't help but learn things and view things in those pictures that you think, "Wow. I didn't know that this was done back then," or "This was an amazing glimpse or part of the city that's now gone or is going fast."
It's mind-boggling to have that little glimpse to the past, really, where you've got the front row because you're watching and helping acquire these new pictures and caring for them and working with them. And in the darkrooms, we were actually printing the original glass negatives, handling material that was there on the scene, sixty, seventy, eighty years previous.
Do you have a particular photo that you remember working on where something totally surprised you?
I can think of one that I thought, "Wow, I've been there, and I didn't know this was there." On the other side of Puget Sound, there's a small city called Winslow on a little island. That whole area used to be the timber industry. I saw photographs of great, big, beautiful handmade lumber schooners. They were sailing vessels built right on the beach in front of the harbor in Winslow, and they’d load them with timber cut in the mill there, and then ship it all over the Pacific on these sailing ships. The photographs were of the guys loading that timber. You can tell it was hard work, but there was such a pride and dignity there.
Plus, the particular photographers that were taking the pictures were actually good. The glass negatives were nicely composed
Is there an innovation or industrial stride from the Seattle area that you find most fascinating?
This is Seattle pride talking here, but the city of Seattle in 1988 was one of the first big cities in the country to undertake a serious, large-scale shot at municipal recycling. No one was really doing that too much. The mayor, Charles Royer, just decided, "We're going to do this." And everyone said, "Oh, forget it. Nobody's going to go for that. That's ridiculous." But he pushed very hard and ended up creating a municipal utility, in a way, that also involved private companies doing the work.
So, that was an early public and private partnership. And it was voluntary at first, but he caught the city at the right moment when people were beginning to be interested in that kind of environmental consciousness, and it took off pretty well. Within about twenty years, it became mandatory. Other cities studied what we were doing and how we did it. So, that was an innovation, not too glamorous, that's for sure.
Are there other innovations you’ve become interested in?
One that’s a little more personal one and I guess kind of glamorous is the history of Eddie Bauer. There really was a guy named Eddie Bauer. He was actually born on Orcas island, outside Seattle, raised in the woods and the fields and on the water. (His dad was a hunter and farmer and they were living pretty close to the land—big family.) They moved out to Seattle when he was a fairly young fellow, but he still loved hunting and fishing. It was his personal habit, and he turned it into what became a business that had about six hundred stores around the world and about a billion and a half in sales.
And he was quite an inventor, too. Eddie Bauer’s the fellow with the first patent on a quilted, down jacket. And that was in 1936. He'd recently gotten married, and was a happy, happy man who decided this would be a very important invention. He worked on it hard, maybe collaborating with his wife, I'm not sure. He had multiple patents on it, and now quilted down jackets all over the world. That was his real breakthrough start, and it fueled his sporting goods-type apparel.
We have on display a photograph of the copy of the actual, original successful patent that he received for that jacket. And to see the big red, wax stamp and that little ribbon—patents in those days looked like really glammed-up stock certificates or something—well it’s a really beautiful thing, and something to be quite proud of. The family had retained it for a long, long, long time and then donated it to MOHAI.
Another personal favorite of mine are two photographs of the Eddie Bauer store in the 1920s. There are about four or five dead deer hung up right in front of the store. Bauer was a serious hunter and many people in Seattle were hunting, too. So these deer showed the success of the weekend hunts from Eddie Bauer, and here's a place you can buy your guns and your clothes and your ammo and everything else.
And later, when that picture was published as part of the history of the company, the deer were airbrushed out of it. It was just a little too much for the later audiences. Not too many hunters.
So what started as clever advertising—not only do we sell hunting gear, but we're really skilled at hunting too, so trust us—became taboo a few decades later.
Exactly. Yeah. And that's the business, I guess.
And what do you think Seattle should know before they head into the museum?
They need to understand it's a history museum. People hear the word “museum” and they have lots of ideas popping through their minds about what they're going to see. Our gallery goes through a broad history of the greater Seattle area, not just the city, but the surrounding area as well. Looking at the diversity of people and endeavors and cultures and national origins in different spans of time. We make a point of attempting to represent everybody's history and make it as broad and general as possible.
And if they visit for a few hours, what do you think is one thing that they should have learned? What's one take-away?
One thing I really hope happens, is that people will leave saying, "I went to MOHAI and I did not know this: dot, dot, dot." That we will have had shared something with them that people just don't typically know about our local history.
Another thing, is that we’re gently reminding people how personal history really is. It's not just big dates and, oh, great guys with beards, you know. It's everyday people doing things that may not be all that remarkable, but that is history. We all create it and appreciate it.
And when you were growing up, did you appreciate it? Was history your most boring class or was it one of your passion points?
I've got to say I didn't get real excited about it. Where a couple of teachers let my imagination go was in historic moments, especially as a kid growing up in the 60s, with a lot of social change. Taking those items of history and relating them to excitement in the day, in the present where I was. So, Social Studies was the concept then and revolutionary behavior through time and that's pretty exciting, no matter how you look at it.
And when you first heard about the partnership with Hotel Theodore, was there a photo you knew you had to include?
There was one, yeah. Boeing is such a big company, of course. So, we knew we'd feature something of theirs. We ended up with several, but there's one truly classic, beautiful picture that I love. It’s of one of Boeing’s test pilots with one of the company’s first successful, commercial planes, the B-1. It's a hand-built float plane, really, a sea plane. (The very plane is on display at MOHAI.) And in this picture, they're standing outside Boeing's first factory,just down the lake from MOHAI's location. So there's a lot of synergy in this image, and it’s a beautiful picture, too.
I had a personal connection to it, oddly enough, with my grandmother. When she came here from the Midwest, one of the first places she lived was a little house near Lake Union, which is by the Boeing factory and by the hangar that this plane flew out of. The plane carried some of the first airmail in the U.S. internationally, across to Victoria, B.C.. So, they're flying Air Mail, an innovative service, in a fantastic float plane, and my grandmother was telling me that, when these new contraptions were flying, everybody on the lake would just all stand out on their front porch and watch the mail plane come and go. It was regularly scheduled stuff, and it was a big deal to see. Imagine, there's hardly any aircraft at all, and here are these things going to work for you at your very own front yard. It was a very nice photograph and I'm glad we were able to include it.
Amazing. And did you discover any surprises of your own while you were curating the photos for the Hotel Theodore collection?
There's one in particular. It's a goofy picture, but it's so Seattle, I just love it. Since around 1969, there's been a boating derby on Green Lake in the city. It’s called the Milk Carton Derby, and it used to be sponsored by a local dairy, which has gone out of business since then. So, the idea is that you save your milk cartons, recycle them into a boat of some kind, and they have races with these goofy boats. I've been aware of it forever. I've never entered it, but it's fun to watch. Most of them sink before they get across the finish line, and people are just dressed zany. It's one of those local traditions that's held up through the years. I didn't know that we had any photographs of it, and there's one that's quite charming that we discovered in a big collection of news photos from one of Seattle's two daily newspapers. In it, there's somebody in their little homemade boat. It's just a kid who's built it himself, just ambling on across the lake there. That was a delightful surprise.
And at the other end of the line of sophistication and expansive big-deal-ness is a pamphlet—a fold-out poster of one of Boeing's early, successful passenger planes called the Stratocruiser. It's from about 1947, and Boeing did this magnificent cutaway view of it in color, showing as if the fuselage was sliced right down the middle. You can see all of the amenities of this plane, and at that time, people got dressed up to fly. The men were in suits and ties, the ladies, were fancy. You see seats that recline into little beds, and there are private dressing rooms for the men and ladies. It only sat about seventy-five people because they have so much space and all these little amenities. I thought, "People will look at that and their minds will be blown." Mine was.
So cool. And can you tell us about the Bertha Knight Landes photo on view at Hotel Theodore?
Yeah, that's a hilarious photograph. Bertha Knight Landes ran for mayor on a progressive ticket in 1926, ultimately replacing a guy who had ties to the police department that were a little crooked. So the photo is a great publicity stunt for her, where she’s in her new office watching him sweep the floor. I love it, too. What a great picture, it was a complete surprise to me too.
What photo do you think will surprise or excite guests the most?
One that might surprise people is a picture of President Eisenhower's Air Force One Jet. It was the very first presidential jet. (There were other airplanes called Air Force One, but this is the first jet and guess who built it? Boeing.) We composited three different shots from the interior of that plane, and it's surprising to look at how primitive and cheesy it was compared to the modern aircraft. There was a more utilitarian, military-look to some of the accessories and so-on. But this was Boeing, and this was Ike and it was war. That picture might surprise people a little bit, and give them a little something to think about.
And, Howard, now for you...what are your retirement plans?
Look, that's a good question. The last project I worked on was very dear to my heart. It's a photography exhibit called Seattle on the Spot: The photographs of Al Smith. (The New York Times photo blog Lens picked it up and did a beautiful job highlighting the photographs and talking about the concepts that went into the show. After that, I'm going to bow out.
Although there’s still work to be done on another collection, one that came to us about three years ago as the result of a friendship of mine with the photographer, Emmett Stanley. I really enjoyed that fellow—good photographer, good friend. I talked about maybe taking the whole summer off and then going back again to keep working on that collection. I won't be a stranger to the old business.
But the other thing, is to travel more. My son travels a lot for a living, and my wife and I can now say drop in and join him! I’m excited to get into staying fit, to taking hikes and climbing mountains again. I haven’t done that stuff in quite a while.
Cheers from all of us at Hotel Theodore, Howard. Congratulations on retirement,and thank you for curating such a wonderful collection!