When I travel, I look for unique. What are the sights you can’t see elsewhere, the foods that you must try, or the places locals are most proud of? When I travelled to Seattle this December, one of the places locals and friends recommended every time was the Experience Music Project, more commonly known as the EMP. And the EMP, now known as the Museum of Pop Culture or MoPOP, is definitely unique. The multicolored building undulates in a seemingly random pattern, but in fact, was designed by Frank Gehry (who we also have to thank for the Millenium Park bandshell) to reflect the musical nature of the place and resemble a pile of broken guitars in both color and shape. The name, as well as the museum, have come to represent a greater vision: to erase lines between “high” and “low” art and embrace more of the stories that impact our daily lives and are happening even now, and preserve them.
It was an interesting parallel, too, because of the similarly non-standard architecture and subject matter MoPOP handles, to the very polarized camps in the Lucas museum debate here at home. “The idea of plopping down a really interesting, crazy-looking Frank Gehry building into the middle of Seattle, a town that wasn’t necessarily noted for its architecture, was a pretty bold move, and it was certainly polarizing…[even today] there’ll be half the people that’ll say they think it’s the craziest, ugliest building ever and half the people that are just blown away that we have the Frank Gehry,” said Senior Curator at MoPOP, Jacob McMurray.
Despite that pushback, and even pushback on exhibits, MoPOP is now a staple, and with 750,000 visitors taking in all it has to offer last year, it seems they’ve prevailed over even the most vocal of naysayers. McMurray recalls, in one instance with the opening of the (inevitable, to be sure) Nirvana exhibit, Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses, that even the title raised some ire with Seattleites. “People were like, Nirvana’s not punk rock, they’re grunge, you’re a total idiot…I think that reinforced for me those people [who didn’t follow nirvana’s whole career] they’re a grunge band because that’s how they observed that content, but people that were around when Nirvana first started, they much more see it as a punk rock grunge thing. That’s the kind of danger of exploring the pop culture territory we’re exploring, because it’s so much a part of people’s lives, and I feel like my job as a curator is less about dictating to people what is important and more about reflecting what people already know is important.”
This is one of the things I think truly makes MoPOP as special as it is. Pop culture isn’t a gimmick to get people in the door, it’s truly a subject of study and a celebration of our culture. And the further I roamed, the more I appreciated the place. Even the term “pop” culture tends to bring with it connotations of impermanence or insignificance. But around every corner, or in this case curve, I saw some of the stories that shaped who I am and what I wanted to be. From the terrible creatures that kept me under the covers some nights to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, these were indelible parts of our lives and childhoods.
In a world where anyone can be a creator, there are still old notions of what constitutes art that, in my mind, hold us back from discovering wonderful things. Even in an era where museums are pushing boundaries (The Field Museum and its fully functional tattoo shop come to mind here), there are still some who would balk at Data’s head being beside Michelangelo’s statue of David. Yet Star Trek was as much a beautiful exploration of what humanity is as David was an immaculate study of human anatomy.
Many museums, McMurray went on to explain, incorporate pop culture by directly tying the content to their core mission, but MoPOP doesn’t have that restraint, which for him, is “awesome.” “I’m working on completely different things all the time. I’m hopping from a science fiction and fantasy hall of fame to a horror film exhibit in the fall, then I’m working on a superhero exhibit for 2018.
A favorite exhibit for both McMurray and myself was Indie Games: Revolution. The exhibit is full of 3D pixel art and stations where patrons can play any of 12 rotating games put out by small developers very recently. It was also a subject that Jacob, though a lifelong gamer, wasn’t fully up on. So he dove in, reading blogs, attending Indiecade and meeting with over 50 developers, coders and programmers. ” I wanted to push the idea that games can be just as powerful artistic experiences as the best of film or literature” he says. “But we’re starting the very basic beginning efforts to preserve this material. So I’ve been working with the developers and doing oral histories with them. Making an intellectual package, so to speak, where they’re letting us bring the game code into our art collection along with the oral history and any associated material, so that we *have* something to preserve… a lot of these things, especially when you’re talking about games that are for a closed system like iOS, where they update the OS a number of times, mean a game might never work again, so I’m trying to preserve these things for the future.”
If MoPOP is an indication of the future of museums, then I certainly think we’re going in the right direction. When I left Seattle, I thought of the loss of the Lucas a little differently, but also found a lot of hope in the subjects our own institutions have taken on, from the Field Museum’s ongoing Hop to It events and taboo challenging topics like Voudou and Tattoo, to things like Bowie Is at the MCA, Adler’s After Dark program, and MSI’s awesome forays into pop culture like Game On, the Jim Henson exhibit and more. And while, as I told McMurray, I would be the first one in the door at MoPOP Chicago should it ever open, I can honestly say that we have it pretty good here at home, too. For 2017 and beyond, I hope we will see Chicago be a line-eraser, too, and seek out more ways to appreciate the stories happening all around us.
If you find yourself in Seattle, I hope you’ll stop by MoPOP. It’s certainly one of my top 10 museums, and something completely its own. And if you’re here in town, I encourage you, even if you’re “not a museum person” as one bad date once told me, that you’ll take a trip inside some of our own institutions and see all the amazing things inside.