While it seem like Seattle’s EMP Museum has always been an indelible fixture of Seattle skyline, it’s actually just turning 15 this month. And although it’s now an icon, that wasn’t founder Paul Allen’s original idea or intention.
At first, the Microsoft co-founder was just looking for a place to house and display his ever-growing collection of Jimi Hendrix memorabilia, according to Jasen Emmons, EMP senior curator.
“They actually looked at opening a 5,000 square foot exhibit that was going to be in the Center House and then the idea just started to expand,” Emmons said. “It was like let’s put some more context around Hendrix so people know he didn’t just exist in a vacuum.”
Allen and his sister Jody — who co-founded the museum and ran his business and family foundation — turned to celebrated architect Frank Gehry to design and build EMP.
Gehry was drawing international attention at the time for his unconventional and provocative design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Allen gave the architect free reign to do the same.
“What he said to him was ‘I want something swoopy,'” Emmons said of Allen’s instructions to the architect. And swoopy was exactly what he delivered.
Gehry modeled the multi-textured, blob-like building after a number of guitars — both in shape and color.
The purple was a reference to Hendrix and “Purple Haze,” but Allen had given Gehry a book about guitars and some of the colors he chose for the building were inspired by the book, Emmons said.
“He saw the Gibson Les Paul Gold Top, there was a blue guitar in there, which of course if part of the museum,” Emmons said.
What was then called Experience Music Project opened to mixed reviews. Many loved both its look and the myriad of exhibits and experiences inside. Others, not so much.
Along with rare Hendrix artifacts, early exhibits included showcases of great rock and roll photography, guitars, Northwest music, legends like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, and the history of hip hop.
But Emmons said one of the most pivotal was Nirvana’s “Taking Punk to the Masses”, a 2011 tour de force of Nirvana music and memorabilia that included unprecedented participation by band members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic.
And it built a key bridge with both the local music community and music fans alike.
“Seattle is a very anti-establishment city and I think when we first opened the museum it kind of felt like ‘well, EMP is the man,'” Emmons said. “It’s this huge, fancy, bright, shiny museum, and that’s not what we’re about.”
“But really, with the Nirvana exhibit, it kind of felt like EMP and this exhibit provided an opportunity to get back together and reflect on how powerful that was,” he said.
It not only brought EMP into the local music community’s good graces, it also drew glowing reviews and a significant boost in attendance.
Much like Nirvana, EMP’s impact extends far beyond Seattle. A number of exhibits created here have gone on to other museums around the world, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Detroit’s Henry Ford Museum, and several in London and Brazil.
But long before that, the EMP brain trust realized they wanted to explore far more than just music. Inspired in part by Allen’s love of science fiction and pop culture, they expanded their scope — first by adding the science fiction museum and hall of fame, then adding exhibits ranging from Battlestar Gallactica and Avatar to video games, Star Wars, and even the Allen-owned Super Bowl champion Seahawks.
“There’s just so much going on that’s exciting about what’s happening in pop culture beyond just music. And it’s really helped broaden our audience,” Emmons said.
That’s why it’s now known as simply EMP Museum rather than the Experience Music Project. And as it heads into its next 15 years, Emmons said they’ll continue looking for ways to expand and showcase both the past and the future of all facets of pop culture.
“We’ll follow where the culture goes and see where the most exciting work is happening,” Emmons said.
The near future includes a new exhibit focusing on the later years of Hendrix’s life, and “What’s Up Doc”, a sweeping showcase of the art of iconic cartoonist Chuck Jones, the artist behind Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and many other legendary characters.
EMP Museum announced Tuesday it will commemorate its 15th anniversary on June 23 with free admission for Seattle residents, live music, and other special events.