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Innovation finds a home at MOHAI

The newest permanent addition to Seattle's Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) is the Bezos Center for Innovation, funded by Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos. That's the Seattle novelist MacKenzie Bezos and her husband Jeff of Amazon.com fame.

Early in the exhibit we're treated to an upbeat animated film encouraging us all to find the innovator in ourselves, and broadening our usual definition of innovation to include all areas of life not just technology or science. Northwest Native Americans found new and better ways to catch and preserve fish; Merce Cunningham revolutionized dance during his time at Seattle's Cornish Academy. And, the characters in the film remind us, innovators need collaborators too.

A wide variety of Northwest innovations are featured in glass cases. Rethink Fabrics makes t-shirts from recycled plastic bottles; the first Northwest water skis were cedar boards attached to tennis shoes. In 1923, Eddie Bauer almost froze to death on a winter fishing trip; later he invented the first quilted down jacket.

The usual Seattle area suspects appear in the exhibits: Bill Boeing, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Howard Schultz (think Starbucks), and Nirvana. But there are also lesser known innovators such as local skateboarders and the unnamed mother who protected her baby from the Seattle cold and damp by fashioning Babylegs, cutting the feet off her knee socks and covering the baby's legs with the remainder.

In keeping with MOHAI's emphasis on interactive displays, visitors can turn wheels in order to see more of a story, such as the section that explains what made certain cities innovators, for example, Athens in ancient times, Timbuktu in the Renaissance, Detroit in the Industrial Revolution.

The exhibit also encourages interactive conversations, with note cards where visitors can display their answers to questions like What stimulates your imagination? and What problems need solving? In another spot you can post your pro and con attitudes on video games and data mining.

One of the most interesting and provocative pieces is a video envisioning a possible dialogue between Seattle's pioneer engineer R.H. Thomson and present day environmentalist Denis Hayes. Thomson found a swampy Seattle and focused on turning it into safe neighborhoods, a powerhouse of efficiency and economic growth. Denny Hill was in the way of that, so he had it leveled. Hayes brings up a more contemporary concern for sustainability. The video "conversation" lets us reach our own conclusions about their contrasting times and visions.

At the exhibit's end, you can pick up a map that connects you to places in MOHAI's other displays that feature more Seattle innovations where you can use your cell phone to hear those stories.

For directions and more information about MOHAI, visit www.mohai.org