Once a sleepy frontier backwater, Seattle long ago exploded into a cultural capital and innovation hub. Its super-power? Residents strong on creative risk-taking and supporting a diverse community. Discover these three museums, two that chronicle the influence of immigrants and another that celebrates American pop culture.
1. Museum of Popular Culture
Geek chic Seattle has a long history of innovation and walking to the beat of a different drummer. Nowhere epitomizes this more for visitors than the Museum of Popular Culture (MoPOP) at Seattle Center, 1½ miles northwest of downtown. The brainchild of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, it celebrates iconic moments in animation, gaming, music, science fiction, TV and other genres often overlooked by the canon. Its mission? To “make creative expression a life-changing force.”
California-based starchitect Frank O. Gehry set out to blend the energy of hot rods and rock ’n’ roll here in his first Pacific Northwest design. The structure gleams with 3,000 panels of bright, psychedelic-hued stainless steel and aluminum shingles. It contains as many structural elements as a 70-story skyscraper and required software invented to develop French fighter jets. The audacious building provoked New York Times’ critic Herbert Muschamp to clutch his pearls, claiming it “looks like something that crawled out of the sea, rolled over and died.”
“It’s a work of art, in and of itself,” says Jacob McMurray, director of curatorial, collections and exhibits. “Some galleries don’t have ceilings or straight walls. Experiencing the building is kind of a fantastical journey.“
No other piece of architecture in Seattle quite hits that level of strange and unique. It feels like the perfect shell for what we do inside. Plus, how cool is it that the [Seattle] monorail runs right through it?”
The museum’s origin story dates back to 1967, when the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the band’s Seattle-born leader first captivated Allen. But the ambitious project didn’t achieve liftoff until 2000. True to the tech industry’s “release early, release often” ethos, MoPOP has undergone a boggling five rebrands as its purpose evolved. Today it celebrates everything from tattoos to horror props, Minecraft, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and The Wizard of Oz, and incorporates classes, recording booths and performance areas
“We’re not showing stuff that’s hundreds of years old,” says McMurray. “We’re exploring topics that are part of people’s personal narratives. Our job is not telling you what’s important, but reflecting back what is.”
Standouts you’ll want to see include the Sky Church, named for Hendrix’s vision of an open-air place where people of different creeds, colors and experiences could gather and commune together. MoPOP’s take includes lighting a 33’ x 60’ high-definition LED screen, supported by lighting effects and world-class acoustics. “It’s such a striking place,” says McMurray. “We hold concerts and fashion shows there. Events, too, like campouts. When David Bowie passed away, we showed Labyrinth. People brought their sleeping bags and we had special drinks.
”Nostalgia can lead to visitors to some big reactions, like crying when they see the guitar Hendrix played at Woodstock. Others grow overwhelmed seeing their enthusiasms — such as Disney costumes — get taken seriously. And sometimes guests fire off enraged emails because “Nirvana isn’t punk rock, it’s grunge” or “Star Trek is way better than Star Wars.”
McMurray grins. “I kind of love that. What better space to be in than having people passionate about your content, even if they’re pissed off? The worst thing would be if they were just like, ‘OK, man, whatever.’”
Director's tip: McMurray says don’t miss "If 6 Was 9," a “crazy tornado-looking” kinetic sculpture of 700-odd instruments, 40 of which combine into a playable instrument — basically a guitar Voltron. "It’s a major piece of American contemporary art," he notes, by the Seattle-based sculptor Trimpin.
Plan Your Trip
Location: 325 5th Avenue N, in the Queen Anne Neighborhood; 206-770-2700; mopop.org
Getting there: Park across the street at the Seattle Center 5th Avenue N garage (516 Harrison St.). Also, 18 bus routes service Seattle Center, as does the monorail.
Visit: Thursday-Tuesday (closed Wednesday); 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (also closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas and one other day in December for the museum’s annual benefit)
Admission: Buy timed tickets online in advance, $25-$30
Best time to visit: Late morning to mid-afternoon weekdays, avoiding peak commuter traffic downtown