A Trip through Music and Pop Culture at MoPop

Through a ridiculously kind gift by my partner’s parents, he and I recently went on an actual trip, out of the house and everything. Along the way, we checked out Seattle and the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPop), originally known as the Experience Music Project. The place is huge, with 140,000 square feet of space housing exhibits on music, sci-fi and fantasy, horror, video games, and since it’s Paul Allen’s place, the Seattle Seahawks. I’m not deeply into sci-fi, but any place that has a Hall of Fame honoring writers, I’m in favor of.


Standing outside, you can only take in a tiny fraction of the… (Visionary? Bizarre? My God WTF is that?) Frank Gehry architecture. Not sure what I think of it, but again, it doubtless put architecture into the civic conversation, and as a resident of a city that pissed away its chance to have a Calatrava, I’m in favor of that too.

(Photos below by Mike Gordon)


If you’ve watched TV, seen a movie or listened to music in your lifetime, there’s something here that you’ll respond to. Robin William’s Mork costume was one of those resonant items for me, and Trekkie or not, there’s an undeniable thrill at seeing the original NCC-1701 bridge, compounded by close-up views of Shatner’s and Nimoy’s costumes (Shatner was really fit then!) and the shooting miniatures for Deep Space Nine and the Borg cube. The Jim Henson exhibit at MoPop is in conjunction with the Museum of the Moving Image, and it’s breathtaking–I have to say it’s better than the excellent one at Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts, which is an official beneficiary of the Henson estate and family.


We lingered a little too long; by the time we got to the music exhibits, it had already been a long day and I was in sensory overload, staring at All the Things and not processing the narrative, which I regret, because MoPop does a phenomenal job of curating and of crafting a narrative that ties together the elements of a collection that’s all over the map.

The current centerpiece is “Bowie by Mick Rock,” presenting 65 photos of Bowie of the legend by the legend, alongside some of the videos Rock directed for Bowie over the years, including “Jean Genie,” “John, I’m Only Dancing,” and “Space Oddity” and accompanied by Rock’s audio commentary. The work is presented on off-white walls in classic gallery style, with a pair of red leather lightning bolt settees for a pop of color, letting the images of Bowie do what the man did in life: mesmerize. A few of Rock’s images of other 70s legends are there too, including Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, and the iconic image of Freddie Mercury in the Dietrich-inspired pose from the cover of “Queen II” and the video for “Bohemian Rhapsody.”


The current Jimi Hendrix collection, “Wild Blue Angel: Hendrix Abroad 1966-1970” focuses on his peripatetic life at the height of his fame, when he was rarely in any one place for longer than a month. Here was his TWA flight bag, a perk for first-class fliers at the time and a great piece of pop ephemera in its own right, alongside some of his clothes (the striped jacket was especially stunning), and one of the boards from Electric Lady. His passport and journal are on display with replicas mounted outside the cases, so you can flip through and read the entries. One of the biggest cultural figures of our time, he was traveling the world and hanging out with other legends as he revolutionized music forever–and in his journal so many days are recorded as “SOS (Same Old Stuff).”


My partner was clearly doing a better job processing the narrative here than I was, because when we took a break to sit and listen to the audio track of interviews playing on loop (MoPop does a good job facilitating places to stop and process the info presented), he commented, “Hendrix had quite a temper.” I hadn’t picked up on this and asked him why he thought so; he said that the supporting commentary mentioned several instances in which Hendrix expressed displeasure or quit a project in anger. A detailed timeline of Jimi’s life in this period was mounted on the wall; I did notice that the entry for his Atlanta show in 1968 noted his disgust for the crowd with a quote about how it just sat and stared at him, waiting for him to set fire to his guitar. Can’t blame him. My image is of a basically gentle man, at least when sober, (this was a guy who actually referred to things as “stuff” in his personal journal as opposed to another word), so it’s doubled my resolve to find a good biography soon and get a better picture.

MoPop has more than 230 guitars in its permanent collection, with 55 on display in “Guitar Gallery: The Quest for Volume,” showing models dating from the 18th century until now. Based on my limited knowledge of the subject, the commentary was excellent, and the collection , including a couple of 1920s Rickenbacker “frying pans.” A few “guitars of the stars” were there, including Pete Seeger’s Martin, one of Duane Allman’s Les Pauls, Dave Davies’ Tele, and Clapton’s “Brownie” Strat. Speaking of which, Leo Fender got his due, but no mention of Ted McCarty, at least that I could actually see: With a few exceptions, a black on black aesthetic has been adopted throughout the building and most of the galleries, and the dim lighting makes it edgy and intriguing but renders it cavelike. It’s visually striking, but trying to make out a black Steinberger on a black background in what feels like 20-watt lighting is frustrating as hell–if the lighting is a given for archival purposes, you have to wonder about the design choice.


Before leaving, it’s a must to spend at least a few minutes taking in Sky Church, the massive vestibule by the entrance, with a 30×60-foot HD LED video screen and a set of equally large-scale inverted parasols floating and twirling 85 feet above the floor like a school of otherworldly jellyfish. On this non-event day, the screen was showing a Pearl Jam show (natch) and later what I think was Bonnie Raitt’s Tribute to Buddy Guy show, and the sheer size of the moving images in that space definitely evoked a house of worship, which in a very real sense, MoPop is.

If you have the chance to go, MoPop is more than worth the time you’ll need to take it all in. If you allow for that, and schedule in some breaks to recharge, you will have an incredible time.

(Photo below: MoPop)







5 thoughts on “A Trip through Music and Pop Culture at MoPop

    1. Really?! I had no idea; somehow I’d gotten the idea you were in the Midwest. We must’ve sailed past you! I’d do the whole trip again in a heartbeat, so maybe one day we can meet up for a beer.


      1. I’m originally from Michigan, so you weren’t tripping too hard, but I do keep pretty clandestine about my personal details: my FB profile is only about “40% complete.” But now I live about 20 minutes from the Canadian border along the I-5 corridor. Maybe next time. First round’s on me!


        1. Deal. Wow-I have a friend whose parents live on Guemes Island. Would love to really see the area; I had no idea what we were sailing through while we were on our way to Alaska and back.


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