A new exhibit in Seattle’s Central Library Level 8 gallery, The Evolution of the Duwamish River, uses virtual reality and a rich display of other materials to explore the past, present and future of Seattle’s Duwamish River.

“The Duwamish is Seattle’s only river, and it’s been re-routed, damaged and polluted,” said Juan Rubio, digital media and learning program manager at the Library. “This exhibit brings the river’s difficult history to life in a really engaging way and gives viewers a chance to reflect — and to take action.”

The virtual-reality experience is available at two stations in the gallery. After putting on a VR headset and hand controllers, viewers are transported to the river as it was before white settlement. They paddle in a canoe down the river, surrounded by towering trees, and pull up to a riverbank to harvest berries. They are welcomed by members of the Duwamish tribe and visit a longhouse, where they can see woven mats and baskets and cook salmon over a fire.

Moving through time, viewers witness some of the drastic changes to the river caused by industry-related pollution and re-routing. They also learn about activist John Beal’s campaign to clean up the Duwamish, and can test water before and after clean-up efforts.

The accompanying gallery display includes maps, photographs, documents and other materials that chart the many impacts of the river’s transformation, from the displacement of native peoples to the diminishment of salmon runs, as well as the current state of environmental clean-up efforts.

Rubio managed the design process of the exhibit, working with students from the University of Washington’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program, who researched, designed and programmed the virtual-reality experience. Luis Gonsalez, a graduate of the University of Washington’s Human-Centered Design and Engineering program and a former member of LSAMP, and now working as a consultant for the library, led design sprints to explore themes related to the Special Collections. Seattle Art Museum’s Traci Timmons curated the accompanying display.

To create an accurate depiction of the river, Rubio’s team worked closely with the Duwamish tribe, getting feedback on early research and ideas. They presented a final version of the virtual-reality experience at the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center before installing the exhibit at the Library.

“It was a very emotional moment. One person was moved almost to tears so see the re-creation of the river the way it was,” said Rubio. The Library is talking with the tribe about housing some elements of the exhibit permanently at the Longhouse.

Rubio said the University of Washington students appreciated the chance to work on this project. “It was a great opportunity for minority students to create something that the public is accessing and learning about. That has huge value.”


“The Evolution of the Duwamish River” is the second in a series of virtual-reality exhibits at the Library. As with the first VR exhibit that told the story of the Great Seattle Fire, the exhibit included materials from the Library’s Special Collections, as well as from sources such as the Museum of History & Industry and the Seattle Municipal Archives.

The exhibit is open for viewing Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Saturday, Sept. 28 (it’s closed on Saturday, Sept. 21). Minimum age for viewing the virtual-reality part of the exhibit is 12.

“The Evolution of the Duwamish River” was created with support from the Seattle Public Library Foundation. Other partners not previously mentioned include students from AIE who created the digital art, the University of Washington’s Gamer Group, the University of Washington’s Information School and KEXP.