5 must see exhibits at Seattle’s EMP Museum

I love museums so much for me it’s a deal breaker in relationships. Think museums are boring? Well, I think we should see other people. It’s not me, it’s you.

Luckily, Carmen loves museums and our pre-nuptial agreement (well, it was a verbal one) allows me to drag her to any big space full of historical and cultural artefacts whenever appropriate.

So imagine my surprise when SHE dragged ME to a museum, kicking and screaming all the way.

We were in Seattle and looking for things to fill our days with. I was feeling lazy so I just wanted to poob about the streets, flitting from coffee shop to coffee shop until I couldn’t stomach another latte or frappe.

Seattle Space Needle, Double-Barrelled Travel

Great view from a cafe – I could have just stayed there all day but Carmen had other plans…

But Carmen made a list of things to do, checked it twice and pushed me towards the EMP Museum.

It was opened in the Year 2000 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to show case the innovation, design and ideas that fuel popular culture.

The big exhibition to see there at the moment is Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses.

An exhibition on a band I grew up with?

That made me feel a bit old, and I was reluctant to treat my still warm memories of adolescence as something to be studied soberly behind glass cases.

But I’m glad Carmen insisted on visiting the place. It’s very, very cool and interesting and we spent a few hours wandering the galleries and learning all about the contemporary culture we thought we were well versed in.

Sometimes history doesn’t have to be that old to be appreciated.

Seattle Monorail at EMP Museum, Double-Barrelled Travel

Monorail! The single tracked train from the 60s goes right into the EMP Museum.

5 must see exhibits at the EMP Museum:

1. Nirvana: Taking Punk To The Masses

I was pretty young when ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ first hit the radio in Australia but I remember it blowing my Michael Jackson, New Kids on the Block, all my parent’s music-loving mind.

That one song kicked in the doors and I began listening, watching and reading all kinds of things that shaped me as an adult today.

So it was quite cool to see the story of how Nirvana and the music scene in North-West America broke out and conquered the world.

Kurt Cobain painting at the EMP Museum in Seattle Double-Barrelled Travel

Nirvana: Taking Punk To The Masses is presented as seriously and thoroughly as an exhibition on the rule of  Henry VIII.

Interviews with leading music producers, journalists and artists from those years in the late 80s to mid 90s play on big screen televisions next to glass cases full of old demo tapes, dirty lumberjack shirts and splintered guitars.

Nirvana was part of a music scene that thrived on a DIY attitude and hated the corporate music that infected the charts back then and the exhibition really shows hard they had to work just to get a gig.

The best part of the exhibition were the walls of sound where you could put on headphones, choose an album and listen. It took me right back and made me appreciate not only how good the music was and still is.

It’s a true art form that deserves to be discussed, analysed and looked back upon in the same way that the Monarchs of England and the painting styles of Europe are.

A tower of guitars at at the EMP Museum in Seattle Double-Barrelled Travel

A massive tower of guitars sits in the middle of the EMP Museum

2. Hear My Train A Comin’: Hendrix Hits London

Jimi Hendrix is a guitar god.

But he wasn’t always so revered. In fact, he had to travel to the rainy streets of London to begin his long rise to fame and that story is chronicled in the  EMP Museum’s Hear My Train A Comin’:  Hendrix Hits London galleries.

Hendrix Hits London, EMP Museum - Double-Barrelled Travel

One of scores of Hendrix posters at the EMP Museum.

Using lyrics, posters, costumes, instruments, photos and interactive video screens Hendrix Hits London explores the reasons he went to England in search of fame instead of trying in America first.

When Hendrix arrived in Britain he formed a band with two white musicians  – something unheard of at the time and the exhibitions curators argue it could only have happened in Britain in those days.

There is a wing devoted to Hendrix’s stylish and outlandish costumes that made him an icon. Most were bought on Carnaby Street, the centre of Swinging London, and many of the panels explain Hendrix wanted to look as exotic and futuristic as possible.

His guitars antics matched that desire and there is lots of footage of him playing the guitar behind his head, smashing the instruments and playing like he was possessed by the devil.

It’s a really good mix of social and pop culture history and I learned a lot. It certainly puts a new spin on Voodoo Chile.

3. Fantasy: Worlds of Myth and Legend.

This exhibition was truly magical. You push open a wooden door and step inside a darkened wing that makes you feel as though you have entered another world.

Indeed you have, because Fantasy: Worlds of Myth and Legend is presented as a tour through the elements that make up the best fantasy.

Jareth the Goblin King, EMP Museum Seattle, Double-Barrelled Travel

Th costume David Bowie wore as Jareth The Goblin King in Labyrinth – what a classic.

The first room shows the story elements and the characters that are typically found in fantasy. There is a row of costumes from famous movies that conform to the template; Jareth The Goblin King from Labyrinth is The Trickster while Inigo Montoy from The Princess Bride book and film is the swordsman.

It was quite cool to see how an art form can be broken down into its basic elements.

The rest of the exhibition explores the Hero’s Journey and how fantasy stories depict the worlds they are set in. There are wands from Harry Potter, costumes from Pan’s Labyrinth and a few secret passageways that were great fun to find and explore.

Carmen was a little disappointed by how little there was of the Harry Potter props – the only fantasy she’s interested in.

4. Can’t Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film

The shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror flick Psycho did not show the knife stabbing flesh once. But it was edited in such a way that your mind sees it anyway.

Alien Xenomorph, EMP Museum Seattle - Double-Barrelled Travel

One of the monster costumes from the 1986 movie Aliens – one of my all time favourites.

Such is the power of horror and the hold it can have over your mind. Can’t Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film was really interesting and yes, I couldn’t look away.

It deals with the psychology of watching a scary movie and how film makers exploit and manipulate your fears to keep you glued to the screen no matter what.

This exhibit features interviews with horror directors like Jon Landis who created the iconic Thriller video for Michael Jackson. He says the trick to freaking people out is to put a small scare before a big one so the audience thinks the worst is over and relaxes!

5. Icons of Science fiction

I love science fiction. You could call me a bit of a geek. But I saw some serious folks at this exhibit; folks who live and breathe in galaxies far, far away even though they are standing solidly on planet earth.

Star Trek Captain Kirk's chair - EMP Museum Seatle, Double-Barrelled Travel

Captain Kirk’s command chair from the Starship Enterprise. Cool!

The exhibition has an impressive collection of science fiction artifacts on display from the movies and TV series that have captured the imaginations of millions. There was Corporal Hicks’ combat helmet from Aliens, Star Trek phasers, lightsabers from Star Wars, model ships from Firefly and original copies of books like I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream.

But good sci-fi is more than models and trinkets. The exhibition shows good science fiction is really modern commentary dressed up with lasers.

For example, the film District 9 is on the surface a movie about aliens who live on earth, but really it’s a discussion about racial segregation and social discord. The true lure of science fiction is that it has a message, often positive or idealistic, that is wrapped in a mythology so it’s easy to swallow.

Carmen rocking out at the EMP Museum in Seattle Double-Barrelled Travel

Carmen rocking out at the EMP Museum in Seattle

Why you should go to the EMP Museum.

OK, glasses on, intellect engaged.

Whether you value it or not pop culture is a massive part of our culture.

It would be ignorant to dismiss it as inferior to art styles that were developed centuries ago that were in of themselves popular products of their time. We can learn from our time.

I doubted there was value in sifting through the detritus of TV, movies and books written in the past five decades. But the EMP Museum showed me a different way of appreciating pop culture as a relevant social force worthy of discussion and appreciation.

Glasses off. There is heaps of cool music, costumes and artefacts. Need I say more?

What you need to know:

Cost – $20 for adults, but $15 if you book online.

How to get there – The EMP Museum is right next to the Space Needle, you can’t miss it. The monorail goes directly there or you can get a bus that stops right outside.

We got complimentary entry to the EMP Museum thanks to the Tourism Board of Seattle. As always though, all views are our own.

free social media strategy e-book
Download our free guide to creating your own successful social media strategy by filling in your name and email below.



About the author

Dave is the co-founder of Double-Barrelled Travel and has been nomadic since May 2013. When he's not busily working on a novel, he can be found exploring a war museum, sailing a yacht (unfortunately not his own), or hiking up a mountain.

2 comments on “5 must see exhibits at Seattle’s EMP Museum”

  1. Suzanne Fluhr (Boomeresque) Reply

    Is this a fairly new museum? I don’t recall it from my last visit to Seattle. It’s a museum my husband would enjoy dragging me to. I’m a Baby Boomer. It’s still shocking to me how our “current events” (I.e. Viet Nam war) are now history. Have you been to the Newseum in Washington, D.C. It sounds like you could spend hours there. The premise: “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.”

    • Carmen Allan-Petale Reply

      It opened in 2004, so it is relatively new. The building itself is beautiful – it was designed by Frank Gehry.
      We haven’t been to that museum but sounds great and totally up our street. Will have to check it out when we get to Washington D.C. eventually!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge