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
Best season to visit: If you like a little fright, aim for the third Friday of the month, when MoPOP hosts its watch-along horror film series, It’s Coming From Inside the House, from January to October. A late-spring festival also showcases sci-fi and fantasy short films each year.
Accessibility: Visitors with impaired mobility often use the covered drop-off area at the 5th Avenue N and Harrison Street entrance. Wheelchairs are available there at no charge (first come, first served). Accessible parking available at the Seattle Center garage.
2. Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience
Letters soar across the sky, fluttering in the lightwell of a hotel that once housed Asian pioneers. Isolated from their roots, the immigrants looked out these very windows and walked between these timeworn plank walls.
The messages they sent home — full of love, longing, loss and hope — hang suspended overhead and also echo through the space in English and other languages. Together they form one of the more stunning installations at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, about a mile southeast of downtown.
“The artwork, Letter Cloud by Susie Kozawa and Erin Shie Palmer, evokes the experience of crossing the ocean,” explains Exhibit Director Jessica Rubenacker. “You hear the waves crashing and can feel the wind against your face. It’s a really beautiful moment.”
The museum draws its name from a Chinese immigrant who became the region’s first Asian-American elected official in 1962 before dying three years later in a small plane crash. The community honored Wing Chong Luke with a foundation, which bankrolled his vision for a pan-Asian museum in 1967. It has since grown into the Northwest’s first Smithsonian affiliate and a National Park Service Affiliated Area.
Powerhouse Seattle architect firm Olson Kundig designed the current space around a 1910 hotel and social center for Chinese, Filipino and Japanese immigrants. It preserved some of the tiny historic guest rooms — now staged with period artifacts — while still creating galleries and the Tateuchi Story Theatre. The 59-seat theater hosts community programming and features on the museum’s historic tour. But any visitor can pop into see its vintage scrim: a tapestry of ads painted over a century ago.
The poignant Letter Cloud remains a pole star in the Wing Luke’s shifting constellations. More than two decades ago, the staff began inviting Asian-Pacific Americans to drive the museum’s storytelling. The community suggests exhibits and guides in their execution. “The process was unique in the field, but aspects of it are becoming more commonplace,” says Rubenacker.
Her colleague, Exhibits Developer Mikala Woodward, elaborates: “We accept suggestions from anybody anytime. We then schedule things three years out, and try to balance representation from different communities, and — you know — kind of grim topics with more joyful ones. We’re not curators. We’re community organizers.”
This approach creates a kaleidoscope of ever-changing exhibits, which range from Filipino portraits to Asian Pacific-American feminism and the work of contemporary artist Gerard Tsutakawa. But the Wing Luke Museum has some beloved constants, too, including the preserved hotel bedrooms and a period Chinese import store. You can also take guided tours of the neighborhood, which often include the Tsue Chong fortune cookie store and the artisan gallery KOBO, selling everything from lacquer bowls to Japanese cypress soap. The museum tends to have some salute to martial arts legend Bruce Lee, as well — Seattle shaped his formative years and houses his final resting place in Capitol Hill’s Lake View Cemetery. The 2021 exhibit will focus on the star’s mind, body and spirit .
Note that there’s no café, because, says Rubenacker, “We wanted to encourage guests to try the many wonderful restaurants in the Chinatown-International District.”
The museum does have a gift shop, however, which sells unusual items like rice noodle stuffies, glow-in-the-dark mahjong Rubik’s cubes, and Hanamaru earrings made from vintage kimono fabric.
Plan Your Trip
Location: 719 S King St.; 206-623-5124; wingluke.org
Getting there: If you drive there, know that Seattle’s rush-hour traffic is barreling towards permanent gridlock. You’ll find several public parking lots one to five blocks from the museum, and street parking is free on Sundays and holidays. Abundant bus routes serve the area and trains rumble into King Street Station, a third of a mile west of the museum.
Visit: Tuesday-Sunday (closed major holidays), 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Admission: $17, $15 for adults 62 and older (free admission for all the first Thursday of each month)
Best time to visit: Midmorning to mid-afternoon to miss Seattle’s traffic congestion
Best season to visit: Some visitors like to plan around neighborhood events, such as the autumn Night Market and spring Lunar New Year. Both celebrate Asian cultures with street food, market stalls, taiko drumming and traditional lion and dragon dances.
Accessibility: An elevator provides easy access to all the galleries. Walkers and wheelchairs provided at no charge (first come, first served).
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3. National Nordic Museum
The story of Seattle’s immigrant-driven strengths continues at the National Nordic Museum in the former Scandinavian fishing village of Ballard, now a trendy neighborhood six miles northwest of downtown. The museum showcases the history of Scandinavian cultures from 12,000 years ago to contemporary times. The collection also explores core Nordic values such as a connection to nature, innovation, social justice and sustainability, according to Leslie Anne Anderson, director of collections, exhibitions and programs.
“We give you a taste of the major points of each Nordic country, but in recent years, we’ve really broadened our focus. We look at the cultural region of Sápmi, home to the Indigenous Sámi, as well as the autonomous regions of Greenland, the Faroe Islands and the Åland Islands. We’re also moving forward and finding connections to tell the stories of those who have Nordic heritage but maybe also, say, Caribbean heritage. For example, we opened an exhibition with artist La Vaughn Belle responding to the legacy of colonialism, specifically the transatlantic slave trade in the Danish West Indies.”
Founded in 1979, the museum occupied a surplus schoolhouse for nearly 40 years. But in 2018, it debuted a world-class LEED Gold-certified home, a blocky modernist structure sheathed in vertical planks of zinc. Inside, West Coast architect firm Mithūn evoked a glacially carved fjord with sky bridges connecting the Old World and New World galleries, intensifying the “experience of migration.”
A skylight illuminates a flock of glass seabirds frozen mid-swoop between the two spaces, adding to the symbolism. As their creator — Faroese artist Tróndur Patursson — told the nonprofit news site Crosscut: “They bring nature inside. They give the building a soul.”
You undertake a journey from “sea level,” exploring objects and oral histories from the Nordic countries, everything from rune stones to reindeer-milking bowls and an ABBA CD. Temporary exhibits, such as Edvard Munch’s photography, also shine here. “You get to see objects that don’t typically travel to the United States,” says Anderson.
Head upstairs and immerse yourself in the landscape — literally. Birch trees stand sentinel over a film theater that’s dotted with pillows shaped like giant, sea-smoothed cobblestones. Fortified by a rest, you cross a skybridge to a gallery that chronicles the Nordic mass emigration in the 19th century, when roughly a third of the population fled famine and political instability. Among the artifacts you’ll see: fishing equipment and a 1914 timberwork jacket from Filson, a local company that started by outfitting Klondike Gold Rush stampeders.
Outside, you’ll want to see a replica Viking ship and Seattle’s oldest working Finnish sauna.
Note that this is also a center for genealogical research, where visitors can have a one-on-one consultation with a professional genealogist. Appointments are available on weekdays, but book up quickly. Andersen recommends reserving a session at least a month out.
Post-visit tip: Get some fresh air at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, an easy six-minute walk southwest. Here, Puget Sound’s saltwater meets the Ship Canal leading to Lake Union. Boats — including most of Alaska’s fishing fleet off-season — rise 20 to 22 feet above sea level. Glass panels reveal salmon species migrating back and forth, and the botanical gardens host free summer concerts, Saturdays at 2 p.m. Three-quarters of a mile east of the museum, stroll Ballard Avenue, a hotbed of boutiques, eateries and galleries.
Plan Your Trip
Location: 2655 NW Market St.; 206-789-5707; nordicmuseum.org
Getting there: Access the museum’s parking lot from the corner of NW Market Street and 28th Avenue NW. Metro buses 17 and 44 run past the museum.
Visit: Wednesday–Sunday (closed on major holidays), 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Admission: $20, $16 for adults 65 and older (free admission for all the first Thursday of each month). Buy online or in person.
Best time to visit: Wednesday-Friday between 1-5 p.m., when it’s less crowded
Best season to visit: Any season, but it's most crowded in summer.
Accessibility: Park on the building’s south side and stroll up the short flight of stairs or roll up the entrance ramp. Inside, easily access all floors via elevator. Wheelchairs available at no charge (first come, first served).
Where to Stay
Near the Wing Luke: Just a six-minute stroll from the museum, check into the Panama Hotel and Tea House, in a 1910 building designed by Sabro Ozasa, thought to be Seattle’s first architect of Japanese ancestry. The 102 simple, pleasant rooms feature antique furniture. A must-see: The hotel displays the country’s only intact sentō (public bathhouse), which sheltered the belongings of some of Seattle’s 7,050 Japanese American residents imprisoned in World War II camps. Rooms from $99
Near the Nordic Museum: At the luxurious 29-room Hotel Ballard, savor views of the snow-gilded Olympic Mountains from some rooms and the elegant rooftop terrace. The property overlooks the main drag in the heart of this Scandinavian-settled neighborhood. Rooms from $149.
Near MoPOP: Splurge at one of the world’s best hotels, the Inn at the Market, an ivy-draped, red-brick property a mile southeast of the museum. In some of the 79 rooms, floor-to-ceiling windows frame the neon Pike Place Market sign and deliver views across Elliott Bay to the Olympic peaks on the horizon. Rooms from $161.
Where to Dine
Near the Wing Luke: Maneki, which dates back to 1904, is Seattle’s only Japanese restaurant to survive the internment era. Feast on sushi dishes such as unagi donburi (grilled freshwater eel over rice) and miso-marinated black cod.
Near the Nordic Museum: Don’t miss the fresh oysters with champagne mignonette at the Walrus and the Carpenter. Or dig into a gloriously messy Caribbean sandwich from Un Bien, a Pepto-pink fave with counter service and some outdoor seating. Go for the pork shoulder, caramelized onions and pickled jalapeños on an aioli-slathered roll from the city’s famous Macrina Bakery.
Near MoPOP: Catch a quick bite at No Anchor, a Belltown beer bar that landed on the 2017 James Beard Best New Restaurant semifinalist list. The must-try dish: smoked and pickled mussels.
Seattle-based writer and photographer Amanda Castleman covers culture and adventure for BBC Travel, National Geographic and Sierra.
Seattle-based writer and photographer Amanda Castleman covers culture and adventure for BBC Travel, National Geographic and Sierra.