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Exploring Pop Culture

The Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle offers a glimpse of some of the biggest cultural icons and phenomena.


Jimi Hendrix. Star Wars. The Wizard of Oz. Ravi Shankar. Prince.

Some of the world’s biggest cultural touchstones can be experienced under one roof: the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) in Seattle, Washington. It is located in the Seattle Center, one of the city’s most visited areas. It was first founded to house some of the items from the extensive range of art and collectibles acquired by Microsoft co-founder, billionaire and philanthropist Paul Allen.

Today, the Frank Gehry-designed museum not only pays homage to the late Allen’s many interests, but has branched off into many other areas.

“The Museum of Pop Culture was developed out of the inspiration and joy that our founder, Paul Allen, felt when first hearing Jimi Hendrix in his 1967 album, ‘Are You Experienced?’ ” says Jacob McMurray, director of curatorial affairs at the museum.

“Paul was interested in creating a museum dedicated to Jimi Hendrix. And in the early 1990’s, development began. After a few years, we expanded the purview of the museum to include American popular music as well. In 2000, we opened as the Experience Music Project.”

As Allen acquired key props and costumes from popular series like “Star Trek,” the museum curators quickly realized that their scope had grown beyond music. In 2004, they turned half the building into the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. 

“With these two content centers of music and science fiction, we continued to expand and explore new territories, until it became clear that we needed a further change,” says McMurray. “In 2016, we became the Museum of Popular Culture, exploring an ever-expanding territory of nerdy, passionate popular culture.”

“Since our inception,” he continues, “we’ve showcased almost 100 exhibitions in the realm of music, science fiction, fantasy, horror, fashion, sports, film, video games, comics and more.”

A permanent Hall of Fame exhibition features artifacts from the world’s most popular and celebrated franchises. Current exhibitions include deep dives into the works and lives of musicians and bands like Prince, Nirvana and Pearl Jam; explorations of fantasy, science fiction and horror franchises; and the chance to explore what it’s like to be an indie game developer. Patrons can also see weapons from “Lord of the Rings,” Mork’s spacesuit from “Mork & Mindy,” and Hendrix’s passport. The museum even owns approximately 200 of Hendrix’s personal records, which include Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha’s “Sound of the Sitar” and M.S. Subbulakshmi’s “The Sounds of Subbulakshmi.”

Some of the museum’s most popular exhibitions, “Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds” and “Bowie by Mick Rock,” now travel around the United States for those who are unable to visit them in Seattle.

“The Museum of Pop Culture’s mission is to make creative expression a life-changing force by offering experiences that inspire and connect our communities,” states the museum website. “We promote the mission by showcasing extraordinary exhibitions and programs that highlight personal creativity and reflect our visitors’ pop culture passions and expertise,” adds McMurray.

Part of MoPOP’s appeal is that it endeavors to offer a wide range of exhibitions and programs for people of all ages and interests. “We are a rare museum, where there is something that everyone in the family will love,” says McMurray. “Pop culture, by its very nature, is comprised of experiences and events that we all share and deem valuable. It’s shared culture that isn’t dictated from on high, but generated by the masses for the masses. As a museum, we don’t feel that we are telling visitors what is important in culture; the visitors already know what is important. We are just reflecting those narratives back to them.”

In addition to an onsite shop, the museum has its own urban café and bar, called Culture Kitchen Seattle by Wolfgang Puck, galleries, lounges, learning labs and more spaces to augment visitors’ experiences. The museum hosts a wide range of programming year-round. Events include the annual MoPOP Pop Conference, which brings together academics, critics, fans and musicians; the Movies at MoPOP film series in the museum’s in-house JBL Theater; a Campout Cinema Series, which uses the museum’s mammoth Sky Church 33’ x 60’ HD LED screen and offers trivia, themed drinks and giveaways; and music and writing competitions.

 

Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.