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MOHAI exhibit on democracy is part civics lesson, part how-to manual

When civic leaders wanted to tear down Pike Place Market in the 1970s, people rallied to save it. Pictured here is a demonstration from 1971.
MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 1986.5.54096.1, photo by Tom Brownell
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When civic leaders wanted to tear down Pike Place Market in the 1970s, people rallied to save it. Pictured here is a demonstration from 1971.

Sometimes in the heat of an election, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment. But there are lessons to be learned from taking a step back and putting it in context.

An online exhibit at the Museum of History and Industry, or MOHAI, in Seattle does that. It looks at how democracy has played out in Washington state over the years, from how we cast our ballots to our use of the initiative process to our history of protesting.

MOHAI executive director Leonard Garfield says the exhibit, “Stand Up Seattle: The Democracy Project,” challenges the notion that our system of democracy is set and unchanging.

“It’s something we hope to explode by showing people that democracy is actually fluid and it’s shaped by us and if there’s something we don’t like we have the power to work to change that,” Garfield said.

For example, there’s a photograph in the exhibit of people picketing in Seattle in the 1970s to save the Pike Place Market, which civic leaders wanted to demolish at the time to make way for high-rises. Through collective action and a vote, the people stopped it.

Garfield says one thing that struck him in doing research for the exhibit was how there were times in Seattle’s past when people from different factions really worked together to accomplish big things, such as the cleanup of Lake Washington.

“Politics isn’t just about partisanship," he said. "It’s also about finding common ground and getting things done.”

But, Garfield said, if you think all the rancor and disillusionment evident now in politics is new, all you have to do is look at a poster from 1978, which encourages people to write in “Nobody.” A line on the campaign piece reads, “If nobody represents you, vote for Nobody.” Garfield said such spoof campaigns also are part of our past.

“Frustration with the system isn’t new,” he said.

Included online are links to "took kits" for getting involved in the democratic system, from voting to getting an initiative on the ballot to staging a protest.

You can see the physical version of the exhibit when MOHAI reopens on Nov. 27, the day after Thanksgiving. 

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