Seattle: Music, Jim Henson and Frank O. Gehry

On Saturday I took the Quick Shuttle from Vancouver to Seattle and back again, on a journey to actually venture in to see the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum (EMP/SFM), specifically the Jim Henson Exhibit. (If you’ve never taken the Quick Shuttle, its a pretty nice experience, inexpensive and though the border can take some time crossing, its got free Wi-Fi.)
While I’ve been to Seattle before, I was visiting friends. I was able to see the exterior of the EMP/SFM before, but I didn’t want to force my friends into joining me for a visit, making them pay yet again to take a friend around the building. It was then that I found out about the Jim Henson exhibit, and being a child of the 80s influenced by shows like Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street (US and Canadian) and the Muppet Show, I decided to make a trip just to see it.

I’ll start with my experience of the EMP side of the building. The exhibits were wonderfully interactive: you can make your own band, see how good a dj you’d be (its harder than you think trying to match beats between 2 different songs), record a music video (and purchase the dvd) and see a multitude of exhibits. I had trouble getting to try all the interactive things mostly because so many people were using them.  Its a great building to bring children, but it gets hard for grownups to actually try things because the kids tend to have the run of the place. I would have liked to try the guitar, vocals, or drums, but there was something strange about not having anyone to join in with me.

The exhibits dedicated to homegrown icons like Jimi Hendrix, Pearl Jam and Nirvana were interesting, as were those dedicated to west coast hiphop. I found the Hatch print exhibit amazing, especially knowing that they still print traditional posters on old-school printing presses. Its an art form all to itself. I wish either of the gift shops had offered postcards of some of the wall prints they had on display. And the evolution of the electric guitar was particularly fascinating: especially the strange hybrid instrument that looked like a euphonium and sitar mated. It was easy to spend hours wandering the exhibits and taking it all in. The church space was beautiful and elegant, though I’m still not sure I heard the perfect acoustics they described. Also of note, the artists and their experiences exhibit was interesting. I especially like Nichelle Nichols’ story about how Martin Luther King Jr. talked her into staying to play Uhura on the original Star Trek show.

The science fiction exhibit left me wanting just a little more. They had some interesting videos on how the future cities reflected the ideas and philosophies of the times they were written, like Blade Runner and the Matrix, but I they’d delved deeper and found more footage and examples. The Jim Henson exhibit was both fascinating and a bit of a letdown in and of itself. I was amazed to hear about how Jim partnered with IBM for several commercials, and the 10 second commercials they played made fun of the advertising industry. They still make me laugh, 50 years after they originally aired. I also found it absolutely fascinating that Jim Henson wanted to create a night club in the 70s, and his sketches were of crazy psychadellic coloured and oddly shaped buildings. How ironically appropriate then, that his exhibit would be showcased in the EMP/SFM, a Gehry building oddly shaped with crazy colours and materials. The exhibit itself was colourful, with accent walls in lovely lime green and fluorescent pink fur; it was a vibrant tactile environment in stark contrast to the dark brooding spaces of the sci-fi apocalyptic exhibits. The world set up to showcase his work was not similar to the world of Fraggle Rock as I had hoped. I wanted a world a little more in line with that of the Vancouver Aquarium, with climbable rocks for children to sit on; a world of the imagination children of all ages could actually enter into and interact with their favorite muppets. This left me slightly disappointed.  I suspect that had Jim been alive to see his body of work exhibited, he would have wanted that too. I was also disappointed that I was not allowed to take photos of Jim Henson’s creatures (without flash even) which I did despite them.

Having now been to 2 of Frank O. Gehry’s iconic buildings, (EMP/SFM and Toronto’s AGO) I think I was better able to understand the pros and cons of the Seattle EMP/SFM. While the overall building left me amazed and somewhat overwhelmed at its construction (I can’t imagine doing the contract admin for that project), I was left with a bit of disappointment with regards to the interior of the building. The exterior leaves no doubt whatsoever of the artistic intent of the building. It wraps around the monorail, projects out, and sensually curves in to the entrances. From above its supposed to look like a broken guitar (according to published materials in the gift shop). But the inside focuses solely on the exhibits, and not on using the ample and curved volumes created by the exterior shell. With few exceptions, the roof structure is composed of grey spray insulation and fire retardent and grey-backed insulation. Little natural light shines through, and even the large music sculpture ends in grey. Contrast this for a second with the more sedate AGO. Its still an iconic building from the outside, but its interior spaces both celebrate the art within and create beautiful interior spaces to enjoy within their own right. Perhaps it is simply a budgetary constraint with the EMP/SFM. Perhaps it has something to do with the complex acoustic design needs for a building that allows people to experience music instead of just celebrating it. Perhaps the AGO seems better inside because of a more mature architectural touch. Either way, there were opportunities missed within the SMP/SFM that could have truly enhanced the experience of the place. Despite what might be a negative review of the EMP/SFM, I had a really fantastic time, and spent more than 5 hours wandering the exhibit.  Its a great place for families and friends to visit.