"Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses," the new, blockbuster exhibit opening Saturday at Experience Music Project | Science Fiction Museum, recalls the shining moment in Seattle musical history when an unknown Northwest band upended the rock establishment.
Any visitor lucky enough to duck behind a plywood barrier in the Experience Music Project | Science Fiction Museum last week would have gotten a sneak preview of a time warp. Staffers there were furiously working to install a priceless framed poster that only yesterday, or so it seems, was stapled to every telephone pole in Seattle.
“Nirvana!” it read. “HUB East Ballroom, University of Washington, Feb. 25 1989.” The price of admission: $4 for students, $6 general.
You’ll pay $15 admission to see the poster on the wall of EMP | SFM when “Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses” opens Saturday, but it would be money well spent. This is the museum’s first major show of memorabilia associated with the band that put Seattle on the rock-music map in the ’90s. Scheduled to run two years, it is the museum’s most ambitious effort in years, and one of its best. It is a certain hit and likely to bring thousands of tourists — and locals — to the museum.
“Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses” includes 225 artifacts from the band’s seven-year history. There are instruments, fliers, handwritten letters and blowups of rare photographs. And while counterfeits of that HUB poster have been widely circulated, the provenance of the one at EMP is unquestionable: as with a dozen of the items in the exhibit, it comes from the personal collection of Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic.
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Novoselic’s contribution is an important element to the success of the show. The items borrowed from his archive, along with those from drummers Dave Grohl and Chad Channing and other members of the band over the years, provide both authenticity and intimacy. That many of these items are band-owned gives viewers a certain permission to gawk without feeling ghoulish.
Many who knew Kurt Cobain have struggled since his death to know how to commemorate him. In the first decade after his suicide, the surviving band fought efforts to immortalize him with statutes or public memorials. Yet as the years have rolled on, attitudes have softened, and the era when a band from Aberdeen could upend the rock establishment seems so ancient now it is a history infused with a powerful nostalgia.
For those who witnessed the period firsthand, the show will have a deep emotional impact. Nirvana and Kurt Cobain are such a large part of Seattle music history that their history is ours. The show makes viewers once again feel the triumph of a shining, once-in-a-lifetime moment when Seattle’s music was the most influential in the world.
Beyond evoking local pride, the show also includes elements of humor and politics. One display is of a hand-painted T-shirt Matt Lukin made for Novoselic that slams Nazis. It dates only to 1984, but the punk design seems so foreign to the music scene today it might as well be something from the era of Elvis Presley. A photograph shows Novoselic wearing the shirt.
“We made a great effort to show these items in context,” says Jacob McMurray, who curated the show. “We didn’t want these things to exist as sterile items in a case.”
In addition to such strong contextualization, the depth, range and rarity of objects displayed makes this show stand out from others the museum has mounted. But most important, Northwesterners will connect to its local focus.
As with many of EMP’s exhibits, extensive online resources and a lengthy video documentary add to the richness and encourage a visitor to linger. One playful segment allows a guest to record a video tribute, which immediately is inserted into a documentary showing on the wall.
That “YouTube”-like edit is one of a handful of ways that “Taking Punk to the Masses” is unlike any museum show you are likely to see anywhere. The display cases are made with concrete and wood from an elm salvaged by Novoselic from southwestern Washington. It has a raw look, but the technology behind it is cutting-edge.
That inventiveness was part of why Novoselic became involved.
“EMP has a comprehensive educational component that makes it so much more than ‘just a museum,’ ” he wrote in a news release. “The more you’re interested in something, the more information on that topic becomes available.”
And for anyone interested in Nirvana, “Taking Punk to the Masses” is a mother lode. In addition to the artifacts, headphones play rare tracks and oral histories. There’s even a Steve Fisk music installation that loops in the gallery as the soundtrack. Fisk turns “Come As You Are” into a moody, David Lynch-inspired soundtrack.
What’s most surprising about “Taking Punk to the Masses” is that the museum took so long to stage a show about one of Seattle’s most important bands.
“I’ve been working on this for over two years,” McMurray says.
To find room for the nearly 3,300-foot exhibit, EMP dismantled its “Northwest Passage” display, making this the only local show now in the museum, other than the Jimi Hendrix room.
Last year the Seattle Art Museum put on a show called “Kurt” that had modern artists tackle the myth of Cobain, and it drew huge audiences. This exhibit wisely avoids most of the “grunge” hyperbole. The caption cards emphasize the band and not the media circus that followed platinum success. The exhibit attempts to depict Nirvana as if they were any other band, albeit a legendary one.
That is achieved in several ways, including graphs that detail the many elements necessary for the Northwest scene to explode, such as college radio, local press and local labels. Several “Record Walls” showcase albums and 45s by bands like the Melvins, the Fastbacks and the U-Men. These sleeve designs, and the extensive oral histories, prove that Nirvana’s roots were musically and geographically diverse. “I didn’t want Nirvana to be draped in ‘grunge’ flannel,” McMurray says.
And though Kurt Cobain remains the oversized focus of Nirvana fans everywhere, the show wisely focuses on the whole band, not just the singer. Novoselic’s huge “Ripper” bass, along with Grohl’s drum kit, get as much play as Kurt’s gear.
Still, for many exhibit visitors, the aura of personal items that once were owned by Cobain will be a large part of the magic. No item is perhaps more legendary than a Mosrite Gospel guitar that greets visitors as they enter. It was this guitar on which Cobain wrote the songs that would end up on “Nevermind.” It is now owned by a venture capitalist, who loaned it for the show.
“Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses” opens just one day short of the 20th anniversary of the first performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” back on April 17, 1991, at the OK Hotel. Cobain played this guitar that evening. The timing of the opening, according to McMurray, is purely coincidental, as most EMP shows open in spring or fall. Cobain also died in April, 17 years ago, and the show was delayed a week to intentionally avoid a start date on that sad memorial.
As workers constructed an alarm-rigged display case for the Mosrite guitar last week, the April opening felt like kismet of a kind. Even sitting behind bulletproof glass, the guitar that launched “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into the world still has stories to tell.
Charles R. Cross: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.charlesrcross.com. Charles R. Cross was editor of the Seattle music magazine The Rocket when Nirvana came up and wrote a biography of Kurt Cobain. He also contributed an oral history to the EMP | SFM exhibit.