Purple Haze, Swoopy Maze: EMP in Review

All the fanfare in the world won’t tell you what it’s like to visit a museum. Seattle’s Experience Music Project (EMP) had all the publicity imaginable as it opened its doors in June 2000, and the claims were as hyperbolic as the Gehry-designed building it occupies. Founder Paul Allen reportedly asked the architect for a “swoopy” structure, one summoning the contours of a smashed electric guitar. An equally extravagant gala and big-ticket concert series kicked off the Grand Opening of EMP, and as confetti cannons sent a multi-hued carpet of paper through the entryway, first-day visitors filed into the museum for a first view of the contents.

Those early days were a bit muddled, with, it seemed, more press credentials than ticket-holding guests gaining access. There was confusion, too, as people tried to find their way beyond that dazzling first glance at the interior and the initial challenges of ticketing and equipment orientation.

Boasting a number of patented technical innovations, EMP has most conspicuously introduced the guest to an electronic museum exhibit guide (MEG). This device is worn on the body, slung over one hip, with a holstered handset to be aimed at in-gallery sensors to play recorded sound and narration related to the visual material. When they work, the MEGs are dazzling; that said, they don’t work all that consistently.

The units are heavy, and not well suited to those assisting other visitors (wearing baby carriers, escorting youngsters), those conveying guests in wheelchairs, or those persons using chairs or walkers themselves. These visitors are understandably frustrated that the MEGs are incompatible with their needs. Very young children are not issued MEGs, and probably would have difficulty wearing them as intended, although the young are, predictably perhaps, frequently the most adept at MEG operation. A fair number of guests seem happier returning the MEGs and viewing/hearing exhibits without the mini-computers. Some avoid them entirely, and seem no worse for it.

Workers in the galleries spend most of their time conducting MEG tutorials or resetting frozen units for baffled visitors. Often enough, the devices require time-consuming rebooting. In the absence of a softer option, the reboot is accomplished by removing and replacing the unit’s battery, a technique which is not apt to improve their enjoyment or service longevity.

Each employee devises a method for approaching earphoned guests to proffer MEG help unobtrusively. As a spectator, my favorite has to be the staffer I watched stroll through a gallery half-singing “I am the MEGman, I am the MEGman, coo coo ca choo…” It is hard not to notice the extent to which the MEGs resemble TV remote controls, just loaded with enough palm-computer features to tease the imagination. Beyond kids firing the clickers on each other laser-style, the MEGS also lend themselves to a lot of jokes (“Can this thing find my son?” “Can it tell me why I brought my husband?” “Does it get e-Bay?”). These elements add some much-needed humor to EMP. It can prove dangerous for pop culture museums to play it too seriously.

I have seen the occasional visitor dance in the halls of EMP. For the most part, however, the heavy reliance on MEGS tends to quiet guests, with most conversation engaged hesitanty, like talking in a cinema. As it turns out, what makes the technology more interactive makes the humans less so.

Still, if you spend any time with your headphones off in EMP, you will hear a guest approach companions, remarking what isn’t in the museum. Where is Sting? Bowie? U2? The stock answer is that EMP features U.S. rock (although that won’t explain an entire section of the museum devoted to Eric Clapton…). The effect of the U.S. focus can be a little strange in practice, though, reducing the Beatles, the Who, and the Rolling Stones to allusions in the discussion of influenced American musicians and groups.

With its reverance toward Jimi Hendrix and the lions of rock (Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Chubby Checker, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard), EMP invites this response. Where some are found enshrined, it is harder to see other artists overlooked or underplayed. You start to look for your favorites and marvel a bit at the attention paid instead to others.

During my time in the museum, I overheard guests asking for more coverage of Fleetwood Mac, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Simon and Garfunkel, the Doors, Sly Stone, and Stevie Wonder. I myself might trade some Replacements and skate rock for more Beat Happening, Tom Waits, John Cage, Van Morrison, and Captain Beefheart, but would readily grant that it is hard to deliver history’s playlist in one building.

After all, EMP is not conceived in precisely the same way as the Pei-designed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Nonetheless, with its focus on the artists at least as much as the art or its audiences, EMP generates its own kind of rock pantheon. Who rates? Who grates? Who goes missing?

Women figure in the stories EMP tells, but seldom in their headlines. You can find references to Heart, Joan Armatrading, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Courtney Love. You can view clothes worn by Janis Joplin or Queen Latifah, and read tributes to forerunners of today’s music, such as Ernestine Young, Bonnie Guitar, and Big Mama Thornton.

Still, male artists dominate the galleries, and women (including those who played the Grand Opening gala and concerts — Sheryl Crow and Annie Lennox, for instance) are more likely to appear as screen images in EMP: Bonnie Raitt on video in the Guitar Gallery, Aretha Franklin in the “Soul Queens” short-subject film currently featured in the museum’s theater, Joan Baez as an ancillary figure in the Dylan panel in the Milestones Gallery. There seems something less substantial, less permanent about these projected pictures of rock’s women than the solid tributes afforded to their male counterparts. It makes you wonder what changes are in store for the museum’s displays, and what balances will emerge.

All this means is that EMP is a work in progress, making this more a preview than a review. There is a lot to like, even laud, about the place. The collection is well begun, with my top picks including some of the lowest-tech artifacts on view at EMP: (1) Tupac’s surprisingly lyrical reply to homophobia and other bigotries (Milestones Gallery); (2) the handwritten Hendrix words to “Belly Button Window” (Hendrix Gallery); (3) the Cobain-designed icon from Nirvana’s In Utero tour (Northwest Passages); (4) boyish photos of Ray Charles and Quincy Jones (Northwest Passages); and (5) the FBI files on the supposedly-suspicious verses to “Louie, Louie” (Northwest Passages).

In addition to the museum’s holdings, I linger in some wonder over its installations. Where else can museumgoers board an indoor thrill ride like “Artist’s Journey” or stand before a several-story sight and sound show like Sky Church (named for the group of musicians who backed Hendrix for a time)? The frequent celebrity sighting don’t hurt either. The last time I was at EMP, I caught a glimpse of members from the Coasters (best known for performing Leiber and Stoller tunes like “Charlie Brown” and “Yakety Yak”) being photographed before “Roots and Branches,” the enormous inverted-cone sculpture of guitars that pierces the museum’s gallery floors to form the building’s centerpiece and guiding metaphor as it dramatizes the twinings of musical tradition and innovation. What EMP has most going for it, of course is a tremendous cache of energetic and devoted staff and volunteers. Their enthusiasm and talent will secure the museum’s future.

I once read an interview with Elvis Costello where he said something to the effect that writing about music is like dancing about architecture — not exactly the best idea. Writing about a music museum would seem to be doing both inadvisable things at once. Still, if I approach this as a forward-looking gaze, I can’t resist a few final suggestions: (1) that the interactive and experiential signatures of the museum’s design would become manifest in more emphasis on (historical and contemporary) audience response, (2) that dance, movement, and touch might find more room in the experience, and (3) that the place begin taking kids more seriously and grown-ups more playfully, as all can play a part in ensuring that EMP rocks.

* * * * * * * * * *

Linda S. Watts authored Rapture Untold: Gender, Mysticism, and the ‘Moment of Recognition’ in Writings by Gertrude Stein (1996) and Gertrude Stein: A Study of the Short Fiction (1999), and has published through such venues as Transformations, Women and Language, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Radical Teacher, Radical History Review, and The World Is Our Home: Society and Culture in Contemporary Southern Writing. Watts is Director of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences and Professor of American Studies at the University of Washington, Bothell.