There’s No Flop in MoPOP

There’s No Flop in MoPOP

Written by Stuart Marvin

On a long-ago eighth grade school trip to New York City, my classmates and I watched a beautifully restored 35-millimeter print of Citizen Kane on the big screen. The 1941 Orson Welles classic is the epitome of great storytelling with a wonderful narrative arc. The screening gave us kids a feel for the early days of cinema, when the in-theater experience was still considered quite special, and was a large part of the era’s popular culture.

In stark contrast to the 1940s, pop culture today is far more ephemeral. What’s often considered culturally hip and relevant one day can seemingly become dated the next, with technology often playing a key role influencing consumer interest and behavior. Look no further than the quick tech-driven growth of both eSports and TikTok. A large question to ponder, however, is: how much staying power does anything in pop culture actually have these days?

Thankfully we have institutions like Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture to provide us with some context and perspective. Better known as MoPOP, the museum celebrates contemporary popular culture, its related memorabilia, and the communities that it binds. MoPOP is part museum, part performance space, part art gallery, part learning space and part interactive playground, wrapped in a Frank Gehry-designed building in the shadow of the city’s famed Space Needle.

Launched in 2000 as Experience Music Project (EMP), MoPOP is the brainchild of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The original vision was to create a museum dedicated to guitarist and Seattle icon Jimi Hendrix, featuring the late Allen’s personal collection of Hendrix memorabilia. That vision was broadened to include a range of musical genres once the museum ultimately launched.

The MoPOP logo. Courtesy of the Museum of Pop Culture.

The MoPOP logo. Courtesy of the Museum of Pop Culture.


From EMP’s earliest beginnings, however, there was confusion as to what the museum was or should be, and some of that confusion still remains today. With such a strong initial focus on Pacific Northwest music and live concert events, featuring top shelf artists like Metallica, Dr. Dre, Kid Rock, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Eminem, perception of the museum among many is still inextricably linked to its earliest incarnation, even six years after its rebranding to MoPOP.

When announcing the 2016 rebranding effort, founder Paul Allen had this to say: “The new name (MoPOP) captures the evolution of the wide set of experiences the museum has come to offer.” Music continues to be an integral part of MoPOP’s overall presentation, as it should, but today the museum has expanded widely into other areas of contemporary popular culture.

A presumably large challenge for the folks at MoPOP is deciding what aspects of pop culture to exhibit. Contemporary pop culture is manifested today in so many different forms, including music, film, television, video games, social media, sports, entertainment, fashion, cuisine, art and technology; the options for consideration are quite rich and plentiful. The internal discussions at MoPOP about “what we should do next” are likely full of debate and varying opinions.

Another challenge, of course, is presenting exhibits that are of interest to both enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts. Not everyone has an appetite for video games, science fiction or viewing walls of guitars once played by the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jimi Hendrix. A goal is to create a balanced, yet broad enough, range of exhibits to satiate the needs and wants of the many. Ticket pricing to MoPOP, although hardly inexpensive, is on par with many of today’s leading museums, with single-ticket admission ranging from $25.00 – $30.00, varying by time of day and advance purchase.

The good news is I found lots of interesting stuff to see and experience at MoPOP.

—For fans of James Marshall Hendrix, there are several important artifacts, including an original 1969 soundboard (mixing console) from Electric Lady Studios, the recording studio Hendrix commissioned and built in NYC. The Electric Lady soundboard was manufactured by the Datamix Corporation and designed by architect John Storyk, sound engineer Eddie Kramer, and Hendrix. Originally designed for 24 tracks, the board was subsequently upgraded to 30 tracks at Hendrix’s behest.


The soundboard used at Electric Lady Studios. From the MoPOP permanent collection.

The soundboard used at Electric Lady Studios. From the MoPOP permanent collection.


The late 1960s was an important period of creative development for Hendrix, who was heavily into in-studio experimentation and multitracking, as best demonstrated with the release of the LP Electric Ladyland in 1968. No doubt Hendrix’s experimentation with that album fueled a desire for even more, as his request to expand the soundboard to 30 tracks would suggest. Had Hendrix not passed in 1970, his work with multitracking and sound effects would have continued in earnest, with this soundboard likely playing a prominent role.

Two songs Hendrix recorded on the Electric Lady board include “Dolly Dagger” and “Night Bird Flying,” from the LP’s Rainbow Bridge and The Cry of Love, respectively.

—Also showcased in the exhibit Wild Blue Angel: Hendrix Abroad, 1966 – 1970 is arguably one of the most famous guitars ever made, the white Fender Stratocaster (serial number 240981) that Hendrix played in 1969 at Woodstock. Paul Allen allegedly purchased the Strat for $2 million in 1993.


The iconic Fender Stratocaster that Jimi Hendrix used at Woodstock. From the MoPOP permanent collection.

The iconic Fender Stratocaster that Jimi Hendrix used at Woodstock. From the MoPOP permanent collection.


—Illustrative of how MoPOP has expanded further into the realm of pop culture is the exhibit Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design. Ms. Carter won the 2019 Academy Award for best costume design for Marvel Studios’ film Black Panther. She is the first African-American to receive such an honor. Other films Carter spearheaded with costume design include Malcolm XSelma, and Do the Right Thing.

In an expansive three-decade career in theater, film and TV, Ruth Carter has established herself as a unique force in costume design. Inspired by African tribal wear, Carter combines tradition with a modern-day aesthetic, to design imaginative costumes that help to create and define a film’s image. This exhibit thoughtfully illustrates Carter’s creative process with costume design, from the early conceptual stages to full creation.


The Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design exhibit. Courtesy of the Museum of Pop Culture.

The Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design exhibit. Courtesy of the Museum of Pop Culture.


—The exhibit Infinite Worlds of Science Fiction has over 150 artifacts from iconic films and television shows, including Star Trek, H.G. Wells’ War of the WorldsMen in BlackBlade Runner, and many more. Artifacts in the the exhibit include a T-800 metal endoskeleton prop used in Terminator 2, a life-sized model of the alien creature from the movie Alien, and a switchboard used to electrify Frankenstein in the 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff.

Infinite Worlds, appropriately, is a tad creepy and covers a wide array of sci-fi culture. Any young child who unwittingly wanders into this exhibit will more than likely be sleeping with a night light that evening.


The Infinite Worlds of Science Fiction exhibit. Courtesy of the Museum of Pop Culture.

The Infinite Worlds of Science Fiction exhibit. Courtesy of the Museum of Pop Culture.


—Sky Church is the museum’s multipurpose performance space that accommodates 700 patrons standing or 200 seated. Sky Church features one of the world’s largest LED screens, a curved high-definition Barco C7 that’s 60 by 33 feet, spanning the entire width of the event space. The screen resolution is mesmerizing, with the relatively small space perfect for both entertainment and live concert events.

—Another MoPOP staple is the museum’s interactive Sound Lab. Visitors to the Sound Lab can play and experiment firsthand with electric guitars, drums, samplers, mixing consoles and other equipment, regardless of one’s skill set.

–MoPOP also has a Youth Advisory Board. The advisory board, compromised of teens 13 – 18, is often used as a sounding board on exhibit selection and curation. Marginally older and musically inclined young adults are encouraged to participate in an under-21 musical showcase called “Sound Off!” Participating musicians get to perform live in the museum’s Sky Church, hone their craft and network with other young, like-minded musicians.

Like many buildings designed by architect Frank Gehry, including the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, natural and artificial light plays an important role in the building’s visual aesthetic. Both of those buildings feature a deeply-curved silver metallic exterior that reflects light differently by time of day. The Bilbao museum, for example, is sheathed in 33,000 ultra-thin sheets of titanium. The exterior of MoPOP, on the other hand, is multi-colored and doesn’t quite provide a similar aesthetic. One early patron summed up the museum’s multihued exterior this way: “it looks like the Partridge family bus crashed,” while another described it as “crayons in a Cuisinart.”

Beauty indeed is in the eye of the beholder.

With MoPOP’s curved walls and ceilings, dealing with sound was an obvious and early concern, especially for a museum where music is such a key focal point. Acoustician Mark Holden summarized the museum’s initial approach to sound mitigation this way: “We had to look at every surface and every material and decide how it would react to sound, and then fine-tune it. We’re talking about a building with 140,000 square feet that’s full of troublesome walls and ceilings.” Sound absorption was used in abundance on the walls, floors and ceilings, including acoustic batting and a stick-on linoleum type treatment for the museum’s metal panels.

Even prior to COVID, many museums across the country were experiencing significant declines in visitation. COVID subsequently led to many closures, and MoPOP was hardly immune to either problem. However, a fairly robust Seattle tourist season this summer has helped MoPOP rekindle some of its lost mojo.

Jody Allen, MoPOP founding director and board chair, summed up the museum’s importance this way: “Creative expression is humanity’s greatest salve. Its amazing power – one that lives inside in all of us – is one reason my brother Paul and I started MoPOP more than twenty years ago. We all need beacons of creativity in this world.”

Wise words, indeed.

If you’re planning a visit to Seattle, MoPOP is definitely worth a look-see.


Header image: the Museum of Popular Culture, courtesy of the Museum of Pop Culture.

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