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Field Tripping: EMP Museum, Seattle

The EMP Museum is squee heaven for geeks and nerds of all varieties. It’s hard for me to imagine inhabiting any corner of geekdom and not being happy here. Sci-fi, gaming, fantasy, rock music, grunge, Star Trek, Star Wars, costume design, 1970s TV, the list is endless. EMP originally stood for Experience Music Project, and was created in 2000 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. In 2004 it absorbed the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, and became a temple to popular (and indie) culture of all kinds.

Designed by architect Frank O. Gehry, the EMP Museum sits right at the foot of the Space Needle in Seattle. Gehry, whose constructions can be found around the globe and include 8 Spruce Street in Manhattan, the Human Resources building of Novartis in Basel, and the Olympic Fish in Barcelona, wasEMP&SpaceNeedle an inspired choice to design “a leading-edge, nonprofit museum, dedicated to the ideas and risk-taking that fuel contemporary popular culture.” Supposedly Gehry, in his quest to create a building that embodied rock ’n’ roll, sliced up several electric guitars and used their pieces as the basis for his design. This is best appreciated when viewed from above, making the museum’s proximity to the Space Needle ideal, but the architecture is trippy and fun from any perspective.


The Sky Church: The name comes from Jimi Hendrix and is an apt description of this space at the center of the EMP. The Sky Church is a concert venue, but spends the bulk of its time as the EMPSkyChurchmost incredible music video and documentary watching space ever. Videos, concert footage, interviews, and back-story documentaries run continuously on one of the biggest HD LED screens in the world. Just to give an idea of what biggest means – 70 foot ceilings.

The guitar tower: Ok, so this is actually called “If VI was IX” and is a sound sculpture EMPGuitarSculpturecreated from more than 500 musical instruments. Built by the artist, Trimpin, it’s not just an awesome photo-op, it’s a sculpture you can listen to. Trust me.

Exhibits: Let’s face it, to me this is the highlight. EMP brings in original manuscripts, props, costumes and more in the genres of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, music and gaming, each arranged into thought provoking and informative EMPDalekexhibits, all with interactive features. I’ve gotten to see original manuscripts of The Hobbit, Game of Thrones, and more by my favorite (and less so) sci-fi and fantasy authors complete with annotations and editing. I’ve seen R2-D2, C-3PO, the Terminator, an Alien chestburster and daleks, all the real-deals from filming. And Uhura'sCostume(pinnacle of squee for a costumer) original costumes from Princess Bride, Snow White and the Huntsman, Star Wars and Star Trek, as well as the performance clothes of artists like Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Cher, Lady Gaga, and Blondie. All this with details of design, materials, inspiration and construction.

PrincessBrideTypically, there are around six exhibits going at a time. A (tiny) sample of exhibits includes: Ella Fitzgerald Spotlight (in 2003), American Music: Photographs by Annie Leibovitz (in 2003-4), Bob Dylan’s American Journey, 1956-1966 (in 2004-6), Alien Encounters (in 2006-7), Out of this World: Extraordinary Costumes in Film and Television (in 2007), Message to Love: Remembering and Reclaiming Jimi Hendrix (in 2008-12), Jim Henson’s Fantastic World (in 2009), Robots: A Designer’s Collection of Miniature Mechanical Marvels (in 2008-9), Battlestar Galactica: The Exhibition (in 2010-12), Worn to Be Wild: The Black r2d2&c3poLeather Jacket (2012-13), Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power (in 2013), Indie Game Revolution (in 2015), Spectacle: The Music Video (in 2015), Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses (in 2015), Star Wars and the Power of Costume (in 2015).

the Sound Lab: If you are into the techniques, science or history of modern music, this is the place for you. Play the Big Drum. Use the gear (instruments and computer sound gear) in a studio pod to jam or learn about the art of mixing. Play with the Audio Technology Interactives to learn how guitars can make such an amazing range of sounds, and the science of amps, samplers, effects pedals,EMPSoundLab and microphones. That’s just the beginning. It’s rock ’n’ roll meets the kind of science museum you dream about. If you are a guitar-geek you’ll also want to head to the Guitar Gallery which traces the history of (you guessed it!) the guitar.

The Building: I’ve already given an overview, so I’ll just put some pictures here.EMPArchitectureEMPStairsEMPlongView

EMP Stores: Yes, the “gift shops” really are a highlight if you are a geek. Have you ever ordered anything from ThinkGeek? EMP has fan goodies that you can’t even find there.


Seattle traffic: So, Seattle is a city, and it has city traffic problems (apparently the third worst in the US, behind LA and ChewbaccaNYC). If you are staying in Seattle, look into non-driving modes of transport to and from the museum. If you are just driving in for the day, be forewarned that Seattle doesn’t have rush hour, it has rush quarter day, and plan accordingly.

The cafe: I’m being a little unfair including this under downsides. The food is actually good and the staff are pleasant. Still, it’s a museum restaurant which means it’s a bit on the pricy and crowded side, no matter how hard they try (and I believe that they do.)

The exhibits can’t all stay forever: I’ve heard that you can have too much of a good thing, but I’m willing to explore that for myself. If I were a Seattle resident, I’d live at the EMP so that I didn’t miss a emplogothing.

Final Verdict:

If there is anything in popular or indie culture that makes your nerd heart go pitta-pat, check out EMP. In my family’s experience it is a comfortable and welcoming place for all ages and genders. (They make an effort to be wheelchair accessible and hearing-impaired friendly, but I haven’t assessed their success, personally.) If you want to field-trip with a geeky teen, this is a must-go destination. I give it 4.7 out of 5.

featured, pink EMP logo by Scott Rasmussen.
EMP & Space Needle by Brian Dewey.
EMP Sky Church by Jennifer.
Guitar Sculpture, If VI was IX, by Lucy.
Dalek by Ky H.
EMP Sound Lab – DJ Hall, by Razvan Orendovici.
Gold view of EMP, by Stocktoc.
Twisting Stairs at EMP, by Yvette Wohn.
Outside view of EMP, by Derek D.
Blue EMP logo from GeekWire.
Uhura’s costume, R2D2 & C-3PO, Princess Bride Costumes, Chewbacca, Slave Leia, and Leia’s white costume by the author.

Cerys Gruffyydd

Cerys has gone through a genetics phase (undergrad years), a biological anthropology phase (grad school years) and a Pilates & yoga teaching phase (mum years). She lives with a scientist, a teenager and a rabbit. Her quasi-secret passion is historical costuming and she can’t look at people without imagining the era in which she would like to clothe them.

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