Kurt Cobain was dead before I arrived in Seattle, but for me, grunge has always been Nirvana. I didn’t jump on the Pearl Jam wagon; I tried but it didn’t work out. I have a thing for Alice in Chains and Soundgarden but Nirvana is my it. I’ve often wondered what it must have been like during the grunge heyday in Seattle, what with impromptu shows, accessible musicians and a league of hipster fans before the term was coined.
When I heard the Experience Music Project was hosting a Nirvana exhibit (running April 16, 2011 through April 22, 2013), I was eager to find me a bit of that old-school grunge feeling. Upon entering the museum, the stunning Roots and Branches structure greets visitors:
Constructed of nearly 700 instruments, guitars, keyboards and drums are clustered to create an inverted cone sculpture. Colors, curves and sounds beckon before you move on to the exhibits.
Now, you have choices: Move to the live band area where you can front a band and see yourself on stage; hit the interactive area where you can play guitars and basses, sing in a real studio, learn to use a mixer to dancify songs, play the drums while accompanied by keyboards; or check out the visual history of guitars. The interactive areas are addictive and timeless fun. Thus, they get CROWDED. (Suggestion: Arrive early & play in interactive area before checking out the Nirvana show and other exhibits.)
As you enter the exhibit, you are flanked by instruments belonging to the trio: Dave Grohl’s drum set, a bass belonging to Krist Noveselic and Cobain’s guitar. Screens are set up with short films running with commentary from recognizable musicians, such as Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye, Black Flag’s Henry Rollins and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm.
Headphones supplement the personal effects that are displayed in the cases. While you view the letters, playlists, show flyers, you can listen to narrated information about the band. Some of Cobain’s art is also on view as well as photographs showing the young trio traipsing all over the world—partying, getting off planes, exploring foreign lands while on tour. The yellow cardigan sweater Cobain often wore in the ‘90s is there. (It’s strange to see it hanging behind the glass sans the man who made it famous.) There are even remnants of a guitar smashed by Cobain.
The exhibit envelops and takes you back a few decades to revel in time.
By the time you hit the visual chronology of guitars room, you might be a bit spent but don’t skip it. The EMP’s collection contains some rarities that you otherwise may never have an opportunity to view (because the museum doesn’t allow flash, the following pictures don’t do the instruments justice). See for yourself:
The 1936 Audiovox Model 736 Bass Fiddle was the world’s first electric bass-guitar and it was created in Seattle by Paul Tutmarc. It looks futuristic a la Jetsons.
A 1920s-style Stroh Hawaiian guitar with built on horn mechanism. Supposedly, “wonderfully weird and LOUD.”
If you are still game after all the music paraphernalia, don’t forget the EMP shares its space with the Science Fiction Museum.