Dive into all things pop culture at Seattle’s MoPOP

Travels with Deb
July 8, 2024 at 6:00 a.m.
Photo by Debbie Stone
Photo by Debbie Stone


It’s hard not to miss Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture or MoPOP as it’s commonly called. The building’s gleaming, sheet-metal facade and curvy, futuristic design definitely makes an eye-popping statement. But when it was constructed back in 2000 to house the 140,000-square-foot Experience Music Project (EMP), there were those who were critical of it, even going so far as to describe it as “something that crawled out of the sea, rolled over and died.” And Forbes labeled it as “one of the world’s ten ugliest buildings.”Opinions aside, the building’s design is attributed to renowned architect Frank Gehry, who drew inspiration from electric guitars to achieve its swooping metallic look, a fitting backdrop for rock memorabilia from the likes of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and the grunge-scene notables.

The late Paul Allen established Experience Music Project as a nonprofit museum. He sought to create a place for people to experience his beloved Jimi Hendrix (a Seattle native) and rock music in general, the way he did. The museum combined an incredible array of artifacts with state-of-the-art interactive technologies and put them in a wondrous architectural home to serve as an attraction to those with great interest in popular music.Flash forward to 2016 when EMP underwent a name change and became MoPOP. Today, the museum is “dedicated to the ideas and risk-taking that fuel contemporary pop culture” and its mission is “to make creative expression a life-changing force by offering experiences that inspire and connect our communities.”MoPop boasts a permanent collection of more than 80,000 objects in genres of hip hop, grunge, Hendrix, guitars, sci-fi and more. And it offers numerous exhibitions that delve into pop culture, the art of fantasy, horror cinema, sci-fi, music and more. “Massive: The Power of Pop Culture” is the newest full scale exhibit at the museum. It’s an immersive showcase of cultural phenomena that have left an undeniable impact on our world.The 2,400-square-foot exhibit explores how pop culture shapes our views, influences our choices and brings us together through the power of shared joy and enthusiasm. It affects everything we consume, from the shows we watch to the books we read, the video games we play, music we listen to and the clothes we wear. It makes us sing, dance, think and feel, and is a defining element of who we are.

“Massive” takes guests on a mind-blowing tour of culture-shaping moments going back to the 1920s, when pop culture really emerged into the mainstream. The exhibit features over eighty artifacts and includes films, interactives and immersive environments. Displays span the spectrum of pop culture from iconic movies like “Star Wars” and the global sensation of K-pop to sports, video games and the influence of Beyoncé.

There’s George Clooney’s Batman costume, Judy Garland’s actual gingham dress from the “Wizard of Oz, Kim Kardashian’s Ancuta Sarca x Nike Bugatti sneaker pumps, Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean jacket, Darth Vader’s cloak and helmet, K-pop light sticks, and more.Visitors are encouraged to explore their own place within pop culture as they navigate the exhibit. Putting the visitor in an expert role is an essential component of the museum’s vision for “Massive.” With the digital technology existing today, the amount of pop culture available, along with the rate in which it travels, everyone has become a creator with the potential for wide-ranging global reach. Think of TikTok, hashtags and memes, and their abilities to inspire movements, rocket a song to chart-topping status or create a new jargon. The exhibit is “designed to provide visitors with fresh tools and perspectives to embrace their roles as pop culture authorities, collaborators and innovators.”“Hidden Worlds: The Films of LAIKA” is a traveling exhibition that shines a spotlight on the creativity, artistry and innovation that has made Portland’s LAIKA Studios a leader in stop motion animation. By melding traditional techniques and new technologies, the company has brought storytelling to an exceptionally inventive level. From its first film, “Coraline,” which became an instant classic, LAIKA has racked up numerous awards, including Oscar nominations for five of its movies.

The exhibit provides access to the studio’s groundbreaking techniques, along with engaging displays, character interactives and sneak peeks of upcoming work. You’ll find hundreds of sets, puppets and props from LAIKA’s films: “Coraline,” “Para Norman,” “The Boxtrolls,” “Kubo and the Two Strings” and “Missing Link.” Visitors are immersed in the “hidden worlds” of LAIKA – the enchanting settings the characters inhabit and the behind-the-scenes wonders of producing these modern classics.

If you’re into horror flicks, check out “Scared to Death: The Thrill of Horror Film.” Feast your eyes on more than fifty props and costumes from film and TV shows, including “a Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Friday the 13th,” “The Walking Dead,” Candyman 2,’ “The Thing,” “Us,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The Shining,” and others. Galleries evoke a creepy ambiance, complete with scary music. You’ll walk by a vampire’s lair dripping with blood, see zombies shuffling through an abandoned containment center and peer into a killer’s den with suspended corpses. There are also oral history interviews with top directors, exhibit films and plenty of interactive photo ops.Nearby, sci-fi aficionados have their own exhibit: “Infinite Worlds of Science Fiction.” With more than 150 artifacts from iconic films and TV shows, including “Star Trek,” “The War of the Worlds,” “Men in Black,” “Blade Runner” and the “Battlestar Galactica” series, you’ll be able to explore space, discover alien civilizations and look for new worlds in this dynamic arena.Continue the sci-fi vibe at the Science Fiction & Fantasy Hall of Fame. Here you can learn about the lives and legacies of the current inductees through films, interactive kiosks and artifacts, like Luke Skywalker’s severed hand from “The Empire Strikes Back,” the Staff of Ra headpiece from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” author Isaac Asimov’s typewriter, the command chair from the classic TV series “Star Trek,” and the special effects bust of Keanu Reeves as Neo in The Matrix. Interesting to note is that the final inductees for each year are nominated by the public and chosen by a panel of award-winning science fiction and fantasy authors, artists, editors, publisher and film pros.Fantasy gets its due in “Fantasy: Worlds of Myth and Magic.” Submerge yourself in this enchanting space, as you discover the inspirations behind this genre’s most memorable creations, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth to J.K. Rowling’s wizarding domain. The exhibit explores fantasy literature, film and art, while paying tribute to the authors, writers and visionaries who have shaped this captivating world. You can interact with many of the displays, listen to audio narrations and see a variety of costumes and props, like the cowardly lion’s wardrobe from “The Wizard of Oz,” weapons from “The Lord of the Rings” and the first white walker head from “Game of Thrones.” “Indie Game Revolution” is for all you gamers. Step inside to hear the stories of more than forty independent video game developers, designers, coders, composers and critics. Then take a playable look into twenty rotating titles from around the world and discover how independent gamers are redefining the industry.Perfect for music lovers is “Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses,” which has returned to MoPOP after touring for a number of years. It’s back by popular demand in a new gallery with a slew of cool items such as manuscripts, clothing and guitars. The exhibit tells the story of the band, embedded with the events happening in Seattle and elsewhere at the time, from the rise of hard core punk rock and onward. And if more than 200 rare artifacts, photos and oral histories aren’t enough, you can dig even further via video kiosks with more info.

Hendrix fans will appreciate “Wild Blue Angel: Hendrix Abroad, 1966-1970,” a look at a time period in the musician’s life when he was on the global road making music, as he rose to meteoric fame. Rare Hendrix interview clips, his diary where he recounts friends, shows and experiences while touring, his only passport, a mixing console from the personal recording studio he used during the last weeks of his life and other artifacts, artwork and photos are on display.Head next to the Guitar Gallery, where you can drool over nearly twenty guitars from music legends like Nancy Wilson’s 1965 Fender Stratocaster, Brandi Carlile’s Taylor GC8, Howlin’ Wolf’s 1965 Epiphone Casino and Jerry Cantrell’s 1984 G&L Rampage. A timeline presents important milestones highlighting the instrument’s development, while videos gives visitors an opportunity to hear the instruments in action through clips of nearly thirty musicians feature in the exhibition.To round out the guitar theme, make your way to the massive, 35-foot guitar tower, a standalone sculpture that includes twenty guitars from music legends, plus other instruments, piled high in a colorful display. It takes centerstage in an open hall and is typically surrounded by enthusiastic visitors.After exploring the music exhibits, you might feel inspired to make your own music. If so, go up to the third floor where you’ll find the Sound Lab. You can play the guitar, drums, keyboards, DJ turntables and even create your own songs. Or jam with your friends in privacy in the mini studio rooms.


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