SEATTLE — Jimi Hendrix thought New Orleans food was just okay. Former New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham boasts a wing span of 7 feet. Billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen may be the most deep-pocketed Trekkie of them all.
And in the eyes of my 10-year-old daughter, I am not nearly cool enough to dress like David Bowie.
These and other insights were gleaned during a recent visit to the Museum of Popular Culture, Seattle’s highly entertaining shrine to music, movies and much more.
Originally founded in 2000 by Allen as the Experience Music Project, it was rebranded as the Museum of Popular Culture — MoPOP for short — last fall. This latest moniker, the fifth overall, better reflects the museum’s, and by default Allen’s, varied interests.
MoPOP time-travels, from fantasies of the past to fantasies of the future, picking up a rock ‘n’ roll charge along the way.
Architect Frank Gehry’s undulating exterior mish-mash of shapes, colors and textures is as bold as the building’s contents. Situated in the shadow of the famed Space Needle, Allen’s flashy MoPOP is only a block away from the far more conventional headquarters of fellow Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates’ philanthropic foundation.
MoPOP is much more than a standard, warehouse-style museum displaying Allen’s acquisitions as an insatiable collector of pop culture memorabilia. Instead, it houses several meticulously crafted, smartly curated, immersive worlds, with much to see, hear, touch and experience in each.
A planned morning visit by our family stretched into a seven-hour odyssey, holding the interest of three young kids not known for their patience in museums.
Regardless of MoPOP’s new name, rock 'n' roll is still coded into its DNA, from the guitar headstocks decorating the umbrella bag stand to the guitar picks issued at the bag-check counter.
Towering over a lobby staircase is a 15-foot-tall photograph of Bowie onstage in his Ziggy Stardust glory, sporting a sequined unitard with one leg bare. Could I pull off such a get-up?
“No, Dad,” my eldest daughter, Sophie, said, looking somewhat queasy at the notion. “No offense, but no.”
More images of Bowie by famed 1970s photographer Mick Rock decorate a gallery where the red couches are shaped like Ziggy Stardust’s signature lightning bolt.
Hendrix, a Seattle native and the inspiration for MoPOP’s original Experience Music Project name, is the subject of his own gallery. Artifacts in “Wild Blue Angel: Hendrix Abroad, 1966-1970" include a diary opened to an entry Hendrix wrote following an Aug. 1, 1968, performance at City Park Stadium: "Weather's beautiful here in New Orleans — food's O.K. ... The park scene was great, can you imagine Southern police protecting ME?"
After the show, Hendrix notes, he returned to his hotel, got stoned and enjoyed the romantic company of “Pootsie, a tall Southern blonde."
Nearby, the sepia-toned Guitar Gallery is a hushed, reverent ode to the evolution of the guitar. Crude and sometimes bizarre instruments give way to the sleek six-strings that brought rock to life: “Brownie,” the 1956 Fender Stratocaster that Eric Clapton played on Derek & the Dominos’ classic 1970 album “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs”; the 1968 Gibson acoustic Pete Townshend used to write The Who’s “Pinball Wizard”; the ’59 sunburst Gibson Duane Allman shredded on “At Fillmore East”; and the ’69 Fender Mustang Kurt Cobain thrashed in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video.
For obvious reasons, visitors can’t touch the instruments in the Guitar Gallery. But such restrictions don’t apply in the Sound Lab, where the instruments are meant to be played in sound-proof booths. We cut a “song” in the Sound Lab’s mini-recording studio. Suffice to say, the Partridge Family we are not.
Following our turn, a MoPOP volunteer stopped the next family in line. “I have to tune the instruments,” he said.
That must be why we sounded so bad.
The racket aside, MoPOP is about much more than music. A temporary exhibit with a separate admission charge on the museum’s third level chronicles the career of Muppets creator Jim Henson. “Don’t forget to pet the Muppet fur,” advised the young woman who collected our tickets.
Muppet “fur” — more like brightly colored ‘70s-era shag carpet — decorates walls. Vintage Ernie, Bert, Kermit the Frog and Grover puppets gaze out from behind glass. Kids — and grown-ups — could shoot a video with puppets, or design their own Muppet characters.
Sketches, storyboards and videos trace Henson’s early commercial work and the evolution of the Muppets and their eponymous TV show. His original pitch to TV executives stated, “Today’s best variety programming on television is fast-paced, uninhibited, free-form, farce entertainment. ‘The Muppet Show’ is not only within this tradition, it is the epitome of it.”
On MoPOP's second level, a heavy castle door opens to “Fantasy: Worlds of Myth and Magic.” The lighting is low, the walls look like stone, and pine needles crunch underfoot. A dragon slumbers behind a locked gate near a huge, silver-plated tree. Allen-owned objects on display include a dress worn by Judy Garland in the original "The Wizard of Oz" movie and the Wicked Witch of the West’s hat, plus Sirius Black’s prison jacket from “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”
The Seattle Seahawks, another of Allen’s acquisitions, merit their own exhibit. A life-size silhouette of Jimmy Graham, acquired by the Seahawks in a 2015 trade, has his arms spread to their full 7-foot width. The Lombardi Trophy the Seahawks won at the 2014 Super Bowl is there, along with notes from one of coach Pete Carroll's pre-game speeches.
Based on MoPOP’s holdings, Allen may be an even bigger fan of “Star Trek” than the Seahawks. A brightly lit stairwell lined with industrial tubing leads to the extensive “Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds” exhibition. Artifacts include Captain Kirk's command and bridge chairs, the helm and navigational control console, a phaser, a flip-open communicator and other props from the original 1960s "Star Trek" TV show. (Fun fact: The show was produced by comedian Lucille Ball's company.)
My kids scrambled through a recreation of a "Jefferies tube" — an equipment shaft that factored in numerous episodes — and shot a video of themselves being "teleported."
The “Infinite Worlds of Science Fiction” exhibit mimics the interior of an unmanned spaceship. The whole, darkened space seems to hum. Encased in glass throughout this “Space Ark” are artifacts from "Star Wars," "Alien," "Dune," "Terminator," "Battlestar Galactica," "Dr. Who," “Mork and Mindy” and other sci-fi-themed movies and TV shows. The menacing silver T-800 endo-skeleton from “Terminator 2: Judgement Day,” the green Greedo bounty hunter costume from "Star Wars" and Darth Vader’s light saber from “The Empire Strikes Back” all reside permanently on the “Space Ark.”
Overall, the offerings border on overwhelming, in a good way.
The Jim Henson exhibit will eventually move out; an exhibition on horror movies will move in this fall.
Like the music and culture it chronicles, MoPOP doesn't stay the same for long.