IQ Interactive Special Report – Music for the e-Masses

EMP, Seattle’s new rock museum, is a little wacky, a little wild and very interactive.
The Experience Music Project, or EMP, is an interactive rock ‘n’ roll museum, a lightning rod of controversy, an addition to the Seattle skyline and above all a branding statement, both for its creator and its sponsors.
The building, which officially opened June 23, is huge–140,000 square feet–and it looks the way Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and his sister Jody Patton, owners of the museum, commissioned architect Frank Gehry to make it: “swoopy.” The $240 million edifice, which has drawn raves from some sources, has met with ridicule from others. Descriptions of the gold, silver, red, purple and blue building vary from “the wreckage of the Partridge Family bus” to “melted plastic” to the oft-repeated “a smashed guitar.”
For Allen, it’s inspirational. Or, as he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer this May, “the architecture is a very exuberant expression of what is going on inside the museum.”
Kathy Scanlan, EMP’s deputy director of museum services, says that the unorthodox design “embodies the spirit of music, especially rock and roll–unfettered and perhaps a bit rebellious.” She likens the controversy over its design to one that developed over Seattle’s Bagley Wright Theater in the mid-’80s, when it was decorated in modulated colors of green topped with red. “People thought it was terrible,” she explains. “And people thought it was great. Now they don’t think about it at all. They just go to the plays and enjoy them.”
And there’s plenty to enjoy inside the EMP. Directly above the front desk hovers a glittering intrusion from the building’s outside, shaped like the nose of an airplane and covered with shiny silver metal plates. Upon paying the rather steep $19.95 adult admission fee, visitors are issued a strap-on belt-top wireless computer museum exhibit guide (dubbed the MEG by the staff), one of the museum’s key interactive elements.
For example, kinetic sculptor Trimpin’s creation, “Roots and Branches,” a spiral of keyboards, guitars and other instruments reaching dizzyingly toward the 85-foot ceiling, is completely wired. As with all the exhibits, when the visitor enters the room, “the MEG knows where you are,” says Chris Bruce, director of curatorial and collections, EMP. “You can touch one of the guitars on the screen, and you’ll get a prompt, ‘This is a Fender Stratocaster. Do you want to hear it play? Learn more about it?'”
Bruce was in on the building’s conception and development from the start, eight years ago. He says Allen originally intended to create a Jimi Hendrix museum, but had received so many suggestions about broadening the museum’s scope that he eventually decided to do so. As for the choosing of the architect, Bruce explains that Allen “wanted something that would make an impression, and when Paul saw Frank Gehry’s design of a conference room shaped like a horse’s head for DG Bank in Berlin, he said, ‘I like that one.’ ” (Gehry, reknowned for his radical designs, also designed the high-profile Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.)
Allen, who has been putting his own special brand on Seattle for years now, already owns its football team, the Seattle Seahawks, as well as tons of local real estate, including 505 Union Station, a new building that reportedly will anchor more than a million square feet of space. EMP is but another, if more visual, statement for the Internet executive.
The museum is also a way for a variety of big-name sponsors to attach their names to a glitzy project–not to mention staff up. Microsoft, for instance, is sponsoring the Electric Bus, a highly visible exhibit or “icon,” as the staff describes the museum’s components. The company kicked in close to $1 million to get the mobile arm of EMP rolling–an arm that will include Microsoft’s recruiting department, which will be “on the bus,” as Donna Gilliam, EMP development manager, put it, “with information for the passive job seeker.”
JBL, which provided speakers for the building, many of them custom made, has had the facility’s 200-seat theater, The JBL Theater, named after it. And the Compaq Digital Lab, for which Compaq provided computer equipment, including the lab’s computers and 21-inch flat monitors, is another sponsorship model.
“The sign on the door says ‘Compaq Digital Lab,’ but it’s not plastered all over our facility,” says Gilliam. “EMP is a cultural institution, not a commercial institution. We’re not putting logos of our sponsors [which also include Lucent, AT&T and Pepsi] all over the place.”
In addition to its role as a museum, EMP will be an ongoing resource for Seattle, according to deputy director Scanlan. The performing areas will host a series of music shows for the public and $100 yearly family memberships are available to keep costs down for local residents.
EMP also offeres the Experience Arts Camp, an off-site summer day-camp program providing mentoring for young people ages seven to 15, which has been in existence for three years now. For two weeks, youngsters work with artists such as Ann and Nancy Wilson of the ’70s band Heart, hip-hop star Sir Mix-A-Lot and actor Tom Skerritt of Picket Fences.
Says Allen, “If people remembered me as someone who had fun working with people to develop new technologies, who tried to do positive things for the community, I would be satisfied.”