… to defining pop culture

Seattle is the home of many curious and seemingly pointless things.  A crap baseball team.  A monorail with just two stops.  A wall made out of chewing gum.  Microsoft.  And MoPop – the Museum of Popular Culture.

Last time I was there was more than a decade ago, when it was still known as the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, with the latter very much an adjunct to the main exhibition’s focus on music and especially music creation.

Like a lot of Seattle’s key attractions, it benefited from the financial support of one of Microsoft’s bigwigs – specifically Paul Allen, who also owns the local sports teams, set up the Living Computer museum in the city, and helped fund the restoration of the quirky and charming Cinerama cinema downtown.

Museum of Pop Culture, Seattle
The renamed MoPop. A victim of the EMP effect…

EMP’s evolution to MoPop has been long but has seen the Frank Geary-designed installation, sitting in the shadow of the iconic Space Needle, shift dramatically to embracing the full gamut of popular culture – albeit with a notably, if unsurprisingly, American bent.

That’s probably most evident in the two big attractions at the moment – the permanent Science Fiction Hall of Fame exhibit, and the current big show they’re running on the life and work of Muppets creator Jim Henson.

The latter raids the Henson archives for an amazing depth of content.  The original, or in some cases second iteration, puppets of many of the Muppet Show’s most recognisable characters are on display – including Kermit, Bunsen and Beaker, the Count, and these fellas.

There’s a huge section on the production of The Muppet Show, down to showing the storyboarding cards used by the writers room for episodes while planning what skits they would do, behind the scenes film footage… yet you’d be hard pressed to find any reference anywhere to the fact it was Lew Grade who stepped in to make it happen, or that Elstree provided the production home for it.

In fact, the only acknowledgment anywhere in the exhibition that the UK even existed in Henson’s world is a brief mention of Television South co-producing Fraggle Rock, although the footage on show is of course from the US version (although, given the rumours about what’s been junked and the rights hell of the TVS archive, perhaps that’s understandable).

There’s some remarkable curios in there, though, including some brilliant rehearsal footage of Frank Oz and Henson as Bert and Ernie, going off script while entirely in character, along with some clips of the original appearances of Rowlf and some of Henson’s non-puppet based experimental filmmaking, including The Cube which seem to take a decidedly Nigel Kneale-ian view of the world.

I’d love to see more of these based on the scant clips available – you’d hope someone would spot a market for them – and hint at the surrealist streak beneath Henson’s more familiar work. Indeed, the depth of archive material gathered makes one long for a deeper dive into the Henson vaults, which have clearly been well-preserved over the years.

Elsewhere, three galleries of exhibitions under the museum cover more familiar turf – film and TV sci-fi, fantasy and horror.

The former features a mix of props gathered from across the world – including a decidedly battered looking Dalek (going from the balls missing off it, is it the one Sophie Aldred battered with a baseball bat?) and a Cyberman, accompanied for those visiting it by a video loop of scenes from Earthshock.  Poor bastards.

The primary focus is on the post-70s, post-Star Wars boom period for sci-fi (rather than SF) film and TV – although a large replica of Gort lurks near the doorway – with the likes of the Nostromo and Hicks’ armour, and the various BSG incarnations featuring heavily.

More interesting is the Horror exhibition – not least as much of it is curated by three notable directors: Eli Roth, Roger Corman and John Landis who, along with telling the stories of their own careers, provide commentary on a series of notable horror films they’ve picked out as being icons of the genre.

It is interesting hearing their observations and readings on unexpected – and un-American – productions such as The Wicker Man and Suspiria, and the different cultural perspectives they bring, such as the suggestion that Sgt Howie is a Catholic – I’d always read his Christianity as being Presbyterian rather than Roman Catholic, to be honest, given the story’s origins.

The Fantasy one is the oddest of the three – lacking the more obvious focus of the other two, it doesn’t seem sure if it wants to be a light-hearted romp through the world of D&D and the Princess Bride, or an exploration of literary fantasy from myth to Tolkien, and ends up falling between two stools.  Although it does feature this cracking gag:

And a decided lack of Game of Thrones.  So that’s something.

The other big set piece at MoPOP is their Star Trek exhibition, spread across two floors and part of the show’s 50th anniversary celebrations from last year.  It absolutely pisses on the godawful Blackpool exhibition we got here last year, being more akin to the celebrated (and sadly soon to be closed) Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff.

It’s also notably much more hands on, with a Jeffries Tube to climb through, Borg chamber to be assimilated in, and the brilliant KHAAAAAAAAAAAAN! booth, where punters can do their own karaoke tribute to Shatner’s purple-faced rage from TWOK.

The range of original props is impressive, from Kirk’s chair to Data’s head, but my absolute favourite bit is the interactive Star Trek Plot Generator, which ostensibly tries to explain the process of storylining an episode but really gives the game away on how they wrote your average Voyager and Enterprise script…

Spin the wheel, make a temporal anomaly!

It also features a wonderful disclaimer at the start, in light of the usual suspects whining about the Discovery trailer, that the pale colour of the dummies used for costumes are to blend in with the exhibition rather than being some statement on casting, and anyone who wants otherwise has missed the point of Star Trek’s diversity.  Short of sticking GIRUY at the end, they couldn’t have issued a better disclaimer.

As for the SF Hall of Fame?

It’s a curious, notably US-centric mix of names, with a lean towards literary ‘hard’ SF, although the recent inductions of the late Douglas Adams and Sir Terry Pratchett do at least balance things slightly more in the right direction.

The mix of more than 100 inductees  – voted for by the public and more recently opening back up to include fantasy (hence the recent induction of Tolkien) and media brands such as Wonder Woman – heavily features the likes of Gibson over Banks, Roddenberry over Newman. But it also hammers home how bad we are at celebrating these things ourselves.

Individual names might get the odd chapeau tip with a plaque or a statue, but a SF hall of fame that’s led by Star Trek and The Matrix before Doctor Who or Metropolis is always going to have a star-spangled bent. All of which leaves me wondering: Just what would a British MoPop be like?

The US one regards Pop Culture to be, largely, geek culture, focusing on sci-fi, fantasy, horror and games (along with the above, there’s a neat exhibition on indie gaming).  Would a British one fall into the same fields – perhaps giving a new home to the Cardiff Dr Who exhibition – or would it need to be wider, taking in the likes of Corrie and the Archers, as much a part of our popular cultural landscape as the TARDIS and a burning Edward Woodward.

A British SF&F hall of fame would likely feature some similar names to its US counterpart, but also more likely to feature the likes of Wells and Banks, Frank Hampson and Terry Nation – names all as worthy and deserving of recognition.

We’re also running out of obvious homes for it. We’ve lost the obvious likes of Quay Street in Manchester – the home of Granada – or Television Centre in London, now being gutted and turned into flats in one of the worst acts of modern cultural vandalism perpetrated in this country.

There’s also smaller exhibitions up and down the land, some more famous than others (anyone ever heard of the Time Machines Museum in Bromyard, for example?) which cover similar aspects of popular culture to varying degrees – so cannibalising them isn’t going to win any fans.  Plus, obviously, the money involved in gathering, curating and housing so much diverse material would be a challenge and there’s no Paul Allen on this side of the pond to step in.

But the ambition and scope of MoPop should be celebrated, and it does feel like there is a vacuum there in terms of celebrating the incredible influence the UK has had on genre output.  The Americans aren’t likely to do that for us.  Maybe it’s time we did it ourselves?

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