While touring EMP‘s extensive new exhibition, Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses, the full scope of curator Jacob McMurray’s vision became clear. McMurray set out to put Nirvana in context with the Pacific Northwest music scene of the late 1980s to the mid-’90s. Seattle’s EMP museum, already a worthwhile experience to begin with, has added a must-see feature with a new Nirvana exhibit, which runs from April 16, 2011 to the spring of 2013. The exhibit focuses on Nirvana, with an impressive array of rare photos, artifacts, and interactive features.
McMurray crafted the exhibit with the specific intent to avoid kitschy grunge-era relics. There aren’t flannel shirts draped everywhere. Rather, he attempted to capture the mood and feel of the Pacific Northwest through less predictable details. Kurt Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen, Washington is a logging town. To help capture that atmosphere, the raw, unvarnished wood which frames many of the displays was cut from a 100-year-old elm tree that fell on Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic’s property. Setting the mood aurally, Nirvana producer (Blew EP) Steve Fisk composed an original, ambient soundtrack that accompanies the exhibit.
Numerous listening stations are set up for visitors to delve deep into the music, not limited to Nirvana but encompassing the entire Northwest scene. Participants, in the form of video interviews and voice-over narration, include Novoselic, early Nirvana drummer Chad Channing, Bleach producer Jack Endino, Nevermind producer Butch Vig, Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, and many others. The sheer volume of information presented warrants more than one visit to take it all in. Vinyl album cover galleries, each with a particular theme—Novoselic contributed one gallery from his personal collection—are also presented with audio narration that helps put them into context.
Among the artifacts that help tell the Nirvana story, visitors will see the original TEAC reel-to-reel tape recorder used by Kurt Cobain to record his very first demo. Highlights include the remains of the first guitar Cobain ever smashed, dating back to a gig in October of 1988. Handwritten lyrics for songs such as “Spank Thru” and “Hairspray Queen” are among the original documents displayed. Original set lists for key Nirvana shows are included as well. Many candid photos, from all eras of the band’s existence, convey much of the prankish, goofy humor that is often left out of the thumbnail version of Nirvana’s history. Among these is a shot of Cobain grabbing the crotch of a life-sized Colonel Sanders statue.
A theater room contains what McMurray describes as “a big experiment.” In a small video booth, visitors can share their own personal thoughts and recollections of Nirvana. The one-and-a-half-minute video will then cycle into a presentation that is projected on a large screen in the theater room. In between blocks of three personal recollection videos, the presentation includes footage from key Nirvana concerts such as drummer Dave Grohl’s first gig with the band. This is a great example of the interactive nature of EMP in general.
Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses is sure to be a nostalgic experience for many 30-and-40-somethings who experienced the Nirvana hysteria firsthand. But beyond that, the exhibit offers an involved, engrossing history for younger fans or even those who are completely new to Nirvana. A companion book, Taking Punk to the Masses: From Nowhere to Nevermind edited by Jacob McMurray (and featuring a foreward by Krist Novoselic), is also available. For more information, visit the official EMP website.