Nirvana in a museum? It’s cooler than you think

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It’s highly appropriate that Experience Music Project’s latest exhibit, “Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses,” is housed in the gallery space where the regional music overview that was “Northwest Passage” formerly lived.

Like its predecessor the exhibit is an excellent lesson in local music history, but instead of broadening its scope to tell the story of music in the Northwest, it narrows its focus to the band that’s become synonymous with Seattle music: Nirvana. And while you don’t get nuggets of information on local artists like Metal Church and Sir Mix-A-Lot, you do get to explore the story of the Seattle band that mattered most, as told by those who experienced it firsthand.

The exhibit nests Nirvana’s story within a larger national underground punk scene, and as its title suggests, it shows how Nirvana led in bringing punk to the attention of millions during a period when bubblegum pop and hairspray metal dominated pop music. Multiple listening stations combined with the large number of artifacts and oral histories make “Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses” equal parts history lesson and tribute to a band that defined a generation.

One listening station features albums by groups like Dinosaur Jr., R.E.M., Minor Threat, and dozens of other bands from the 1980s and early ’90s that either influenced Nirvana or were the band’s contemporaries who achieved success partly because Nirvana paved the way. A listening station called “In Bloom” features more than 25 albums from local bands like Love Battery, the U-Men, Skin Yard, Tad, and others who were nearly as important as Nirvana was to Seattle’s development into the epicenter of rock during the ’90s. While those bands never achieved the same level of success, it’s great to see them represented, plus the emphasis on these local icons of past years makes for a respectful and subtle nod to “Northwest Passage.”

Of course Nirvana is the main attraction, and the number of Nirvana-related artifacts on display (225) and the amount of care taken to tell the band’s story accurately and respectfully are very impressive.

The first thing encountered after entering are glass cases housing a Krist Novoselic bass, Kurt Cobain guitar, and Dave Grohl drum kit. The instruments are placed in front of massive Charles Peterson photos of each member of the band. The larger-than-life photos juxtaposed with the instruments give the exhibit an epic feeling that matches the epic sound of the band it commemorates.

Turn the corner and you’re transported back to 1984 with candid pictures of Cobain in high-school art class and some of his teenage drawings. Near those pictures is a listening station where you can hear the “Illiteracy Will Prevail” demo Cobain recorded in 1986 with the Melvins’ Dale Crover. The demo features “Spank Thru” and is one of the earliest Cobain recordings. On the demo you hear coughing and whistling, and Cobain’s vocals are deeper and noticeably underdeveloped.

As you continue through the exhibit you get a sense of Nirvana’s transformation from three guys who liked to play music into a band with immeasurable worldwide success. Just about every section contains something iconic or extremely noteworthy for the band’s development, with items ranging from the group’s first press kit to the original artwork for the “Sub Pop 200″ record. Stage props from the band’s “In Utero” tour, the band’s 1992 MTV Video Music Award for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (which reads “Smells Like Team Spirit”), and the setlist for the band’s MTV Unplugged concert are other notable items displayed behind glass.

A confessional video booth allows visitors to record their stories about Nirvana and how the band impacted their lives. The filmed narratives are then interspersed among live clips of the band and other recorded narratives, and played on a massive video screen within five minutes of being recorded. Because EMP doesn’t have the ability to screen every clip, the films are deleted after they’re projected onto the big screen.

The exhibit ends at another listening station that really hammers home its focus on not just Nirvana but the underground punk scene. The listening station features selections from more than two dozen albums hand-picked by Novoselic that influenced Nirvana, and the lanky bassist narrates each selection explaining why the album was important to the band.

Nirvana’s story can’t be told without the sudden ending caused by Cobain’s suicide in 1994. The exhibit respectfully acknowledges the band’s tragic end in its “Legacy” section, which features videos of grunge luminaries talking about the importance of Nirvana and a selection of iconic grunge-era albums including Pearl Jam’s “Vitalogy,” the “Singles” soundtrack, and Hole’s “Live Through This.” There’s nothing I noticed that directly addresses Cobain’s drug use, though, which is unfortunate. The exhibit will attract thousands of teens, and an explicit reference would have made for a responsible telling of the story, considering that everyone already knows how it ends. Interestingly, the Hole album is one of the only traces of Courtney Love to be seen in the exhibit’s 2,500 square-foot space.

“Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses” will be on display through April 2013. Exhibit curator Jacob McMurray said he hopes the installation will then tour to museums around the country. McMurray has said he would like to do more exhibits focusing on specific Seattle artists down the road, but before he takes on that task EMP will feature a touring Australian exhibit focusing on AC/DC. The museum has not announced when the exhibit will come to Seattle.

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Travis Hay

About Travis Hay

Travis Hay is a professional music journalist who has spent the past 13 years documenting and enjoying Seattle's diverse music scene. In 2009 he established Guerrilla Candy and is currently the site's editor and publisher. He has written for various media outlets including MSN Music, the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, Seattle Weekly, Crosscut.com and others and was the founder and former editor of the defunct music site Ear Candy.