Museum of Pop Culture
A modern museum in Seattle
. Until 2016 it was know under the abbreviation EMP which stood for “Experience Music Project”. Now abbreviated MoPOP, it is a specialist museum celebrating pop culture not only in its musical form, but also in film, fashion, video games, etc.
You are probably wondering what such a place has to do with dark tourism. Well, admittedly the connection isn't the strongest, but here it is: the two figures especially celebrated in this museum, arguably the two biggest names in rock history to have come out of the Seattle area, are both dead: Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.
Furthermore, in the film part the museum boasts a special section on horror movies, and some of that is pretty dark as well.
What there is to see:
First of all there is the building in which the museum is housed. It's a design
by acclaimed architect Frank Gehry
, famous e.g. for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain
. The MoPOP's design is less universally appreciated. It has attracted some harsh criticism, but I must say I quite liked it in its radical garishness.
Inside you are at first surrounded by a space of similarly funky design, but once upstairs in the actual exhibition galleries, the interior design does not distract from the content of the exhibitions.
There are several separate sections. Two are dedicated to particular rock acts that both originated from the Seattle
area and thus put the city on the map of pop culture, as it were.
One is Jimi Hendrix
, arguably the most influential player of the electric guitar ever, who in September 1970 famously died from a drug overdose in London
, Great Britain
, at the tragically young age of 27. The Hendrix exhibition concentrates mostly on his touring around the world between 1966 and 1970 and has various personal artefacts he left behind, including clothes, his passport and a diary, as well as several concert posters and photos. The largest exhibit here is the mixing console from Hendrix's Electric Lady Studio.
The other dead rock star especially celebrated at the MoPOP is Kurt Cobain, who in 1994 committed suicide, also at the age of 27. It appears to be an age at which quite a number of pop stars died, hence the expression “the 27 Club”, including e.g. Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison (see Pere Lachaise), Richey Edwards and, more recently, Amy Winehouse.
More than focussing on Cobain's death, though, this museum section highlights the influence his band Nirvana had on the world of rock (they are still regarded as the quintessential exponents of the Grunge style). On display are various items from the band's history, like smashed-up guitar bodies (they had a penchant for destroying instruments on stage), an original Dave Grohl drum set, photos, stage- and album-cover props, and much more. There's also an interactive screen on which you can watch videos pertaining to that period of rock history (including highly entertaining contributions by Henry Rollins!).
Surrounding the two dead-rock-stars galleries are further pop-music-oriented exhibitions, most notably a collection of electric guitars/basses, from the earliest prototypes to the latest models. Effects pedals also get their own small section. The celebration of the guitar culminates in a giant sculpture that stands in the hall, two storeys high: it is a “tower” fashioned (mostly) from guitars (there are also a few banjos and the odd cello and you can even spot a drum and an accordion in there if you look closely).
Leaving the realm of rock, the museum is also strong on its coverage of the movies, in particular science-fiction. In fact, the MoPOP incorporates an earlier “Science Fiction Hall of Fame” exhibition. This section too has a few interesting artefacts, such as a Dalek prop from the “Doctor Who” series, as well as sections exploring the topic of spaceship design or concepts such as teleportation (“Beam me up, Scotty!”).
While Sci Fi can be seen as at best overlapping with dark themes (even if only marginally), the special section on horror movies is firmly within dark territories. Fictional they may (mostly) be, they still relate to the realities of fear, shock, good vs. evil, death and survival, and confronting demons and nightmares. The section is entitled “Can't Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film”.
On display are a number of film props used in famous horror movies, such as the axe from “The Shining”, the H.R. Giger designed monster suit, egg and face-hugger from “Alien” or the face mask and machete from “Friday the 13th”.
Especially interesting, I thought, was the section on music scores and horror films. On an interactive exhibit you could actually “test” the relative scariness of famous horror film scenes with or without the music score. Needless to say, it is often largely down to the soundtrack that such scenes derive their particular horror from, not so much what you see. (Striking examples were taken e.g. from the films “Psycho” or John Carpenter's “Halloween”).
Furthermore there was a wall of film posters covering virtually every horror flick of note in history, as well as a “scream booth”. The latter is supposed to be another hands-on (or rather: mouth-open) exhibit in which you could test your own ability to let off a horror-film-like scream. However, at the time of my visit it was out of order, so I couldn't even be tempted.
I also happily skipped the section on video/computer games. Having never played any and having exactly zero interest in the subject I didn't even look in. Nor did I go in the special temporary exhibition (at the time of writing, March 2016, it is a fashion theme, “Hello Kitty”).
But I did head up to the top floor where the highlight is a series on fully hands-on sections: booths where you can test your own abilities on various rock instruments, be it a drum set, keyboards or electric and bass guitars. Having once been in rock music myself I couldn't resist and had a go at letting rip for a bit in the bass and guitar booths. If you come as a group, you can even use the full band booth. In addition there is a mock stage where you can play to a virtual crowd (but for me that would have been to much vanity grooming).
The very largest bit in the MoPOP is what they refer to as the “Sky Church”: it's a huge cavernous hall dominated by a giant curved screen on which music videos, animations, famous images from Sci-Fi films, quotes from rock musicians and other thematically related footage is screened.
All in all I found the MoPOPO, then (in 2015) still called EMP, a fun place to while away some time in, even if the connections to dark tourism don't go very far. But the horror film section alone makes visiting this museum worth it. Whether it is also worth the rather steep ticket price is something everybody will have to decide for themselves.
right by Seattle
's premier landmark, the Space Needle, about a mile from the heart of the city centre. Address: 325 5th Avenue N, Seattle, WA 98109
Access and costs: easy to get to; expensive.
Details: Getting to the MoPOP is quite easy, either by public transport or by car. There is a paid parking lot right by the museum and also nearby street parking. The historic monorail built in 1962 for the Seattle World's Fair connects straight to the city centre at Westlake Center (at Pine Street/5th Ave), and there are several bus lines serving the location too.
Opening times: daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. in summer, only to 5 p.m. in winter.
Admission: 25 USD (seniors, students: 22 USD, children aged 5-17 16 USD), when buying tickets in advance online, there are sometimes small discounts on offer too (at the time of writing it was 3 USD off).
Time required: I spent about an hour and a half in the EMP ((as it was then still called), but I skipped a couple of sections, so you can probably invest more time here, especially, of course, if you also want to make full use of the hands-on sections on the top floor, where you could spend all day learning to play some of the instruments offered for tutorials here.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under Seattle
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Seattle's most famous landmark stands just outside the MoPOP: the iconic Space Needle
. It's an observation tower, serving no other practical function (it is NOT a TV tower, for example), built for the 1962 World's Fair. The 600 foot (184m) tower has since become one of the most recognizable structures of modern architecture in the USA
. The “flying saucer” at the top (the similarity is quite intentional in the design of the tower) houses a revolving restaurant and an observation deck. It's quite expensive to take the lift going up to the observation deck (22 USD for adults – but it's “free” when you dine in the restaurant, which, however, is very expensive in itself).
- EMP 1 - light effects on the hyper-modern shiny facade
- EMP 2 - Space Needle reflected
- EMP 3 - inside
- EMP 4 - the acronym stands for Experience Music Project
- EMP 5 - guitar tower
- EMP 6 - you can play rock instruments yourself in special booths
- EMP 7 - Jimi Hendrix clothes
- EMP 8 - Dalek in the Science Fiction section
- EMP 9 - Alien in the horror section