MoPOP is ‘reflecting popular culture right now,’ and it’s doing it online
Apr 5, 2022, 2:01 PM | Updated: 2:05 pm
(Athena Iluz via Flickr)
Seattle Center’s Museum of Popular Culture’s (MoPOP) curatorial director Jacob McMurray is spearheading a project to move the beloved museum’s contents into an accessible online format.
McMurray began working at what would eventually become the Museum of Popular Culture in 1994. At the time, the museum’s founder, the late Paul Allen, envisioned building the world’s largest collection of Jimi Hendrix artifacts and relics.
“A big part of my job in the mid-90s was helping the curators at the time develop that collection. I would go around to different record stores, screen printing shops, and different collectors and pull in material related to specifically the Pacific Northwest music scenes at the time,” McMurray told MyNorthwest.
“I often think as somebody that started here when I was 22 years old, a lot of the stuff that we were collecting at the time, exhibitions we were working on, really became fundamental parts of my personality and who I am, and what I like, as a person. You know, I do feel like Paul had this crazy idea of creating this giant museum dedicated to music, and then science fiction, and then popular culture.”
Today, the museum boasts 80,000 individual pieces of history— spanning everything from original Beatles setlists bearing scribbled notes of last-minute song selections to glow sticks and memorabilia taken from Korean Pop concerts.
Only a fraction of those 80,000 items can be displayed at the Seattle Center at any given time, totally just 1%. Three years ago, McMurray and Melinda Simms, collections manager with MoPOP, began the process of compiling that archive into a digitally available format. While a work in progress — currently available are just over 200 objects— McMurray envisions the online catalog as a more equitable way to access the museum’s archive in the sense that it has the potential to more completely showcase MoPOP’s breadth of material.
Much of the collection was built between 1992 and 2000 when the museum was still the Experience Music Project, so the majority is music-related with a focus on the Pacific Northwest. With the pivot into a broader focus on popular culture at large, McMurray wants MoPOP to more completely reflect a global audience’s experience with popular culture.
That goal is helped with the online portal, easing access and contextual understanding. Many of the items on digital display are captioned with at least two to three paragraphs of context and information about the piece in question, information that can assist universities when the museum is tapped by researchers, for example.
“You may get that in an exhibition where that thing is on display, but you may not. If we’ve got Grandmaster Flash turntables on display, which we do right now, there’s a very small caption there. That is a lot less than you would see on the online portal,” the curatorial director added.
McMurray and Simms see the potential to expand the online archive into multimedia. For example, the museum has helped produce and feature more than 1,100 oral histories throughout its lifespan, artifacts that they plan to ultimately reproduce online.
While the digital project predates the pandemic, COVID-era restrictions on the museum’s ability to engage with the community reinforced the value of expanded online access. McMurray described the museum as a living collector of real-time history during the time. MoPOP tasked itself with aggregating Seattle artwork that was showcased in and around the community during the pandemic.
“We’ve collected a number of murals that were on display in downtown Seattle when everything was shut down. Over the last year, we’ve been working with Vivid Matter Collective, who are the group of artists that did the Black Lives Matter mural up on Capitol Hill, and we just did a Quincy Jones focused mural, in collaboration with them that just launched at the museum, and that’s part of our permanent collection. Part of talking about popular culture is reflecting what’s happening right now,” McMurray continued.
The online collections vault is still a work in progress. McMurray and Simms hope to rework the interface such that the collection is divided by popular culture categories, making it easier for patrons to view by interest.
“That’s something that we’re implementing right now,” McMurray noted.