Seattle’s Experience Music Project: For Rock Music Lovers

EMP, sitting at the base of Seattle's Space Needle, was designed by Frank Gehry.

(SEATTLE, WA) The Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum or, as it is now commonly known, EMP sits below Seattle’s famed Space Needle like a recently landed alien starship. The brainchild of Microsoft gazillionaire Paul Allen, it focuses on the history of rock music. Although the Science Fiction Museum officially closed in 2011, current exhibits celebrating Battlestar Gallactica and Avatar carry on the tradition.

The real reason to enter this eye-popping Frank Gehry-designed building is for the music history. On a recent, all too brief visit I was able to sample exhibits on Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix, and the development of the electric guitar.

Nirvana, of course, holds a special attraction for Seattle, since it was this group from nearby Aberdeen, the prototype for grunge rock, that briefly made Seattle the center of the rock world. Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses is appropriately fawning and the curators apparently thought it would be rude to disabuse the progenitors of the grunge rock movement of the wrongheaded notion that they were the first groups to write their own songs. This exhibit runs through April 2013.

Far more interesting, not to mention more accurate, is Jimi Hendrix: The Evolution of Sound. Hendrix also had Seattle roots (who knew?). If you have only a passing familiarity with Hendrix and his work, this exploration of his life and music will help you realize what a towering artist he was. His death at age 27 from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills cut short a major musical career that would have stretched the boundaries of rock and pop if not totally transcended them.

The exhibit is an embarrassment of riches. If you have the time, you can listen to his entire oeuvre here. The only disappointment is that some of the segments of an audio biography are no longer working. This exhibit is apparently the “first in a series of ongoing Hendrix-related exhibitions.”

Guitar Gallery is an homage to the electric guitar.

A special treat is the Guitar Gallery: The Quest for Volume, a chronological exploration of the development of the guitar, specifically the electric guitar. The antique instruments are gorgeous, the accompanying notes illuminating, and the video that accompanies the exhibit a pure delight, showcasing as it does some of the masters, both familiar and obscure, of the instrument.

It would be very easy to spend an entire day here. I didn’t have the time, alas, so I missed exhibitions on the film Avatar and TV series Battlestar Galactica, both of which seemed like a lot of fun. I also had to pass on On Stage, an interactive experience that lets you be a rock star. According to EMP, “On Stage transports you to the center stage of a large arena, complete with smoke, hot lights and screaming fans. You and your band mates will sing and play drums, guitars and keyboards in front of a virtual audience.”  Once I learned that groupies were not included, my interest waned.

The museum also features an enormous room with an equally enormous screen on which are projected music videos and the kind of psychedelic light shows that back in the day could only be seen with the aid of several tabs of very good acid. One floor down there is a bar. Such is progress.

For more information:
Seattle Center
325 5th Avenue North, Seattle  98109
(206) 770.2700
(877) EMP-SFM1
Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission starts at $18