That's the hype, anyway: Mostly, SFM is a collection of junk that could have come straight off the floor of a 17-year-old Paul Allen's bedroom: from a Mars Patrol spaceship toy from 1950, to a set of rare Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov first editions, to a lavish display of pulp science-fiction books and magazines.
Why a science-fiction museum? The link between rock and science fiction is far from obvious--even, it seems, to museum planners themselves. Last week, EMP program director Robert Santelli explained that in addition to being "visions of Paul Allen" that "inspired him as a young man in many different ways," both rock 'n' roll and science fiction are "very strong elements of American popular culture." Hence, synergy!
Well, video games are also a product of American pop culture, but we haven't built a multimillion-dollar shrine to honor them--not yet, anyway. A more likely explanation for the perplexing move is the ongoing financial straits of EMP, which Allen ("PGA" to employees) himself subsidizes, contributing between 20 and 30 percent of the museum's budget every year. Layoffs have trimmed EMP's staff from more than 500 employees in 2000 to just over 200 today. Since the museum opened, attendance has dropped at a similar pace, from 800,000 in 2000 to just 443,000 last year. (Santelli, in EMP's defense, stresses that attendance is on the rise.) Memberships, likewise, have declined, with only 22,000 people paying $35 or more for unlimited admission in 2003, down from 28,000 two years earlier. EMP's annual budget has slimmed down by more than half, from $45 million in 2002 to $17 million this year.
EMP's financial problems are all the more telling viewed in the long shadow of the hype that preceded the $240 million shrine's 2000 opening. The boosters came from every corner--from politicians (who predicted EMP would put Seattle, at long last, on the proverbial map) to the local and national press, who described the music temple with a crescendo of increasingly hyperbolic metaphors. "A kind of rock music." "A rising tide that lifts all boats." "An important evolution in the city's cultural scene." "About the Seattle we're becoming. Not the Seattle we've been." Perhaps most fawning was an editorial in the Seattle Times, which predicted that EMP "will be felt in any home with kids and adults who care about new music and great rhythms of the past. EMP will inspire this city to understand the value of live, contemporary music in society."
The most wildly optimistic among EMP's boosters predicted the museum would provide Seattle with the break from the past it had been seeking for most of the last four decades. Symbolically, the city remained stuck in 1962--the year the Space Needle and the monorail, our two iconic albatrosses, were built. If EMP succeeded, it would redefine Seattle as a bold, daring, cutting-edge place where the future of architecture and cultural institutions was being wrought. If it failed, it would stand as a rusting homage to a high-tech billionaire's mile-high hubris--a symbol of a gee-whiz decade that duped us into believing that money was the same thing as taste.
The backlash against the overwrought Frank Gehry-designed building that houses EMP was inevitable and almost immediate. In 2002, less than two years after Paul Allen mortified local officials by smashing a lime-green, Dale Chihuly-designed glass guitar to kick off the museum's opening, Forbes magazine named EMP one of the world's 10 ugliest buildings. Insulting EMP has since become something of a civic sport, culminating in New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp's evocative description of the building, in a May 16 review of Seattle's new Central Library, as "something that crawled out of the sea, rolled over, and died." (The library, which Muschamp feted with lavish and deserved praise, makes Gehry's swooping, Technicolor pastiche seem embarrassing and almost quaint--provincial striving made manifest in an architectural three-ring circus.) Other depictions have been equally unflattering: open-heart surgery gone awry, a slaughtered cow, a dumped-over garbage can, an airplane wreck, hemorrhoids, and "something found under the couch at a college fraternity house." A break with the past, yes. But a new future? God help us.
But forget about what EMP has done for or failed to do for the city. After all, it's not the responsibility of billionaires like Paul Allen to dispel Seattle's reputation as a cultural and architectural backwater. How does EMP hold up in its own right--as a museum about music? When critics attempt to dissect where EMP went wrong--why attendance is down, why people eschew the permanent exhibits, why walking through certain chambers feels like wandering through a natural history museum--they inevitably criticize the idea of a museum devoted to rock music. Rock is too raw, the critics say, to canonize with somber placards behind sheets of dimly lit Plexiglas. (Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum raised plenty of the same criticisms when it opened in 1995.) Only lightweights, the argument goes, are impressed by the detritus of musicians' lives--the cast-off clothing and lyric sheets and concert posters and magazines that once cluttered around someone famous. It's the music, not the stuff, that matters. The music--the process of making music--is antithetical to the kind of displays of things that are the natural province of museums.
All of which is valid and a good point and probably true. Although I haven't been to the Hard Rock Cafe in years, there are some pretty obvious parallels between an exhibit that treats a hat Jimi Hendrix once wore like a priceless anthropological artifact and a restaurant where you can look at Bob Weir's guitar as you munch on cheesy fries. And I can imagine that a fan of Janis Joplin might find it annoying to see Joplin's velvet blouse hung on a mannequin in some solemn glass chamber as if it were the Shroud of Turin. But I'll leave it to music critics to make that objection. My problem with the exhibits is more basic: I don't want to pay money to look at some guy's really cool record collection. I want to learn something about the bands behind those plastic-encased album covers, and I want to learn a little about how they made their music.
As a museum, then, EMP's mission is twofold: First, it aims to teach visitors about the evolution and history of rock 'n' roll. Second, it aims to educate them about the process of making that music. In addition, it's supposed to be interactive, enabling visitors to customize their tour with neato, cutting-edge technology.
Whether EMP succeeds on the first point is a matter critics have debated endlessly, with little resolution. The permanent exhibits, which include an overview of Northwest music, a cool, interactive collection of old guitars, and an overwhelming (and pretty amazing) array of Jimi Hendrix artifacts, sometimes work and sometimes don't. Ultimately, though, I'd rather read a book about Jimi Hendrix (or even poke around on EMP's website, www.emplive.com) than pay $22.95 to interact with all this stuff. The temporary exhibits, including "Disco: A Decade of Saturday Nights" and "(Un)common Objects: Pop Music's Sacred Stuff," a hodgepodge of pop memorabilia, have been as uneven as the museum's permanent fixtures. The latest rotating exhibit, "Beatlemania! America Meets the Beatles," is supposed to "demonstrate the power music has to impact individual lives" with "rare memorabilia, examples of commercial excess, and quirky expressions of fan creativity." In reality, it's a jumbled collection of mementos, merchandise, and magazine covers that, while interesting, doesn't amount to much more than a big, curated window display of really cool stuff. If you've seen one Beatles board game, you've seen them all.
EMP's failure as a music "experience," meanwhile, is simultaneously disappointing and utterly predictable. Did we really believe EMP would revolutionize museums with its shoulder-harness computers and really big digital video screens? Those vaunted Museum Exhibit Guides, clunky portable computers that play music and narration when visitors aim a laser at spots on certain exhibits, are distracting, heavy, and difficult to manipulate. In this age of iPods and handheld cell phone/computers, the MEG seems like a relic from the misty technological past. Worse, the guides now cost $3 each (or $5 for two), on top of the already steep $19.95 admission. (The extra cash, Santelli says, helps pay for EMP's educational programs.)
The only really interactive aspect of the Beatles exhibit, for example, aside from the MEG, was a lonely little computer console, at which (on the day I came across it) visitors were invited to answer the question, "How important do you think marketing is in the success of popular music performers? Do you think this has changed over time?" The verdict, according to one essayist: "Marketing is just as important as the quality of the music." Another likened the Beatles to Britney Spears.
Look, I'm all for EMP's egalitarian approach--more on that later--but there is a lowest-common-denominator quality to many of EMP's exhibits that I find both exasperating and disheartening. While I appreciate the idea that anyone can learn to make music, it takes years of practice, not to mention aptitude, creativity, and calling, to actually do it. EMP's overarching premise--that making music is something anyone (even you!) can learn to do--seems off base in a building filled with exhibits that adulate rock idols like Jimi Hendrix. EMP trivializes music-making by treating it as something anyone, with the help of a little computer wizardry, can learn in an afternoon: Just pick up a guitar and play a song.
Literally: One of the museum's most popular features is a giant, room-size karaoke machine known as On Stage, in which visitors can "play" songs (when I was there "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" was a particular favorite) using computerized, automated instruments while a screaming crowd is projected on a video screen. Not to be a killjoy, but this contraption--fake instruments, cheesy instructional video ("The instruments on this stage are special. They practically play themselves!"), and all--belongs in a mall, not a music museum. On the other hand, maybe EMP is onto something: On a recent Friday afternoon, while most other exhibits were almost empty, On Stage boasted a line of adults (and a few kids) a dozen strong.
But it's the Songcraft exhibit, more than the karaoke room or the artifact exhibits or the outdated MEGs, that encapsulates everything I find frustrating and condescending about EMP. In theory, the gallery is supposed to teach visitors how musicians go through the process of writing a song. In reality, it's a big room full of sliders and buttons that you can manipulate to change a song's rhythm, play along with a melody, alter a song's tempo, break a four-part harmony into its components, and listen to three different mixes of a song. As a music fan (but not a musician), I know that the album version is different from the remix. What I want to know is why it's different. What instruments have been removed, speeded up, tamped down? How do I place my fingers on a piano? How does altering a song's rhythm change the effect it has on the listener? And what does a song look like before it becomes a finished product? You'll have to read a book on music theory to resolve those questions, because you won't find their answers here. EMP staffers say the SongCraft exhibit is aimed at kids, but nothing in the exhibit itself makes that clear. And both times I was there, there was nary a child in sight.
Thank God, then, for the Sound Lab, which saves EMP from becoming a temple to musical flotsam and obsolete technology. The lab, a gallery where visitors can make their own music using actual instruments attached to computer tutorials that can be adjusted to individual users' skill levels (and heights), teaches the hard lesson the rest of the museum struggles to conceal: Making music is really, really difficult. And there's no such thing as instant gratification. I spent 30 minutes trying to learn to fret a guitar before deciding that maybe it just wasn't my instrument. Elsewhere, I pounded arrhythmically on a drum pad, fumbled my way around a mixing board, and tried to reconstruct the few remaining remnants of eight years of piano lessons. It was a blast.
If the Science Fiction Museum, like EMP, fails to draw enough visitors to sustain its own outsized ambitions, it seems likely that Paul Allen will take his costly experiment through another conceptual U-turn. (So far, according to EMP spokesperson Paige Prill, "over 500" people have joined SFM, compared to EMP's 22,000.) If that happens, the Sound Lab, perhaps more than any other exhibit at EMP, has earned the right to stay. By teaching a tough lesson--that being a musician requires aptitude, practice, and skill--the Sound Lab has the potential to do something nothing else inside the museum can: take people who like music and turn them into people who appreciate it.
An analogous statement could not be made for the Science Fiction Museum, a jumbled mishmash that mixes arguably important artifacts (first-edition manuscripts of sci-fi classics) with glorified press-kit rubbish (a poster advertising the 2004 movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which, though inarguably sci-fi based, is hardly historical). It's almost as if the museum's curators were afraid to make any judgment calls on the relative importance of their artifacts: A scale model of the Mars rover shares a generic black-cloth-covered platform with a Hot Wheels spaceship, and yellowed sci-fi manuscripts are nearly crowded out by a giant collection of toy rockets.
The "hands-on" elements of SFM, meanwhile, are nominal: A huge "interactive" video screen lets you watch a video about the movie spaceship of your choice, which sounds cool, until you realize that the show you're supposed to be watching is actually on a tiny screen in front of you. SFM director Donna Shirley explained that the museum plans to add more interactive elements along the lines of EMP's MEG, "if we can raise the money," which turned out to be a frequent refrain. Overall, the museum gives the impression of being thrown together very quickly and on a limited (or poorly allocated) budget--all the exhibits look oddly homogenous, and the ones that try to be a little more inventive (such as "Fantastic Voyages," designed to look like the inside of a spaceship) don't quite jell into a narrative. (When I visited, Shirley talked me through the spaceship concept, but I would have been a little lost without the extra commentary.) Ultimately, though, none of this may matter: For the museum's real target audience--the vast population of Trekkies, sci-fi convention-goers, and collectors--SFM will probably become a destination as sought-out as Graceland is to Elvis fanatics. Whether or not anyone else will give a damn is another question entirely.