The Experience Music Project — the museum founded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen 16 years ago — is changing its name for the fifth time. Now it will be the Museum of Pop Culture, or MoPOP.

Share story

The metallic, multihued, architectural undulation at Seattle Center — commonly known as EMP — is being christened for the fifth time.

First it was Experience Music Project. Then it was the acronym EMP, then Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame (“EMPSFM” for short-ish), then EMP Museum.

Now the institution founded by former Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen in 2000 and designed by Frank Gehry is becoming the Museum of Pop Culture, or MoPOP.

Pop Culture Party

Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP)

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19; MoPOP (formerly known as Experience Music Project), Seattle Center, Seattle; free (

The change, said curatorial director Jasen Emmons, has been in the works for about a decade after the museum added its science-fiction component and continued to grapple with its identity. Besides music and science fiction, it has presented exhibitions about fine art (“DoubleTake”), horror film (“Can’t Look Away”), fashion (“World of Wearable Art”), video games (“The Art of Video Games”) and black leather jackets (“Worn to Be Wild”). The new name, Emmons said, “is just catching up with who we are.”

“It gets frustrating when people say: ‘What does EMP stand for?’ ” said Emmons, who worked at Microsoft and the licensing company Corbis (founded by Bill Gates) before landing at the museum.

“It was a head-scratcher for the public as we made zigs and zags while we were growing up. People said: ‘Wait, I thought you were supposed to be a rock ‘n’ roll museum.’”

Zigs and zags have been a hallmark of Allen’s restless cultural philanthropy: a computer museum; an aeronautics museum; the Upstream music festival; the Seattle Art Fair; and Pivot Art + Culture, the perplexing, now-it’s-open, now-it’s-closing, no-wait-it’s-open-again museum on the ground floor of the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

Emmons said Allen views himself as a catalyst who wants to launch projects and step back to see if they can stand on their own — which is why, he added, Allen has slowly reeled back financial support for the multi-mission museum he founded at Seattle Center.

MoPOP-née-Experience Music Project has been running on a deficit for several years, though the museum’s tax records show that deficit shrinking from over $10 million in 2010 to around $3.2 million in 2015.

Jon Eastlake, the museum’s director of finance, said that’s partly due to depreciation of the unusual-looking building made of curves instead of corners (and infamously described by a New York Times architecture critic as “something that crawled out of the sea, rolled over and died”). Unlike some museums, EMP’s building and operations are part of the same legal entity for tax-reporting purposes. “Excluding that depreciation,” Eastlake wrote by email, “EMP produced an excess of revenues over expenses of $3,546,975 and $1,633,207 respectively for 2015 and 2014.”

Planned MoPOP exhibitions for 2017-2018 include artifacts and photographs associated with Jim Henson, David Bowie and cartoonist Rube Goldberg.

Emmons said the name change to MoPOP comes at a time of strength, with 743,533 visitors in 2015, up 26 percent from the year before. Emmons attributed those numbers, in part, to the museum stretching its cultural borders.

“Music fans are often hands-in-pocket, too-cool-for-school, and not as interested in interacting with other people,” he said. “Geek culture is really tribal, looking for opportunities to connect with other people who share their passion.”

Still, Emmons hastened to add, MoPOP will always have a place for music.

One of his favorite moments at the museum came three years ago. He was with some tired punk musicians from Boston — bedraggled at the end of a national tour in their van — when they walked into EMP’s Sound Lab. A 12-year-old kid was playing guitar. “They looked at each other and said, ‘He’s pretty good,’ ” Emmons said. The band’s drummer and bass player asked if they could sit in and what the kid knew how to play.

The answer: AC/DC.

Soon, they were playing “Highway to Hell” and people flocked over to watch. After three songs, Emmons said, the kid “floated out of the room like it was the best day of his life.” But the rockers were even more excited. “It was like they were reminded: ‘This is why I do this,’ ” Emmons said. “And we’re going to pass this on to the next generation.”