Sci Fi in Seattle: A Review of the Science Fiction Museum at the EMP, Seattle

Ε (Epsilon) visit-able, but why bother?

EMPIn Brief:

Having spent the bulk of my life as an archaeologist, I have more than a scattering of experience and love for Museums.  As regulars of this blog know, I also have more than a scattering of love for Science Fiction.  To that end, I was very excited to visit a museum that combined these loves.

A cool entrance, but not actually aligned to the door like this.  You have to step to the side to get this view

A cool entrance, but not actually aligned to the door like this. You have to step to the side to get this view

In Detail:

Under the shadow of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle, nestled in the futuristic form of a Frank O. Geary building designed to look like a smashed Stratocaster guitar,[1] lies what was once the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame.  Now assimilated into the better funded EMP museum of Music + Sci Fi + Popular Culture,[2] this collection includes a wide variety of iconic sci-fi objects, such as Captain Kirk’s original command chair, a Dalek, an alien from the Alien franchise, and many other fascinating pieces of Science Fiction history.

EMP Tornado of GuitarsIt is a remarkable collection that has been displayed with all the curatorial and thematic skill of a Hard Rock Café.  Shoved in the out of the way basement of a space otherwise dedicated to Rock music,[3] these artifacts of the science fiction genre are individually well presented, but thrown together in a haphazard fashion that gives no narrative or structure to the experience.

Really.

None.

EMPThis is about all there is

This is more or less it. For $20 per person. Ta da!

The Superman suit worn by Christopher Reeve is stuck next to objects from Stargate.  Commander Data‘s original uniform is half hidden by a display that shows how a green screen works.  As for the Hall of Fame element, I nearly missed it as that the plaques are scattered randomly behind the larger Sci-Fi objects, barely noticeable unless you happen to randomly glance up from hodgepodge of collections that clamor without rhyme or reason for your attention.  Nowhere is there a map or display that gives any order to what you are seeing… and barely any description.  It is the MTV of informational displays.

But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself… perhaps I should begin with a narrative.[4]

More guitars...

More guitars…

I recently went with my family and In-laws on a trip to Seattle, Washington,[5] where much to my delight, my mother-in-law noted that she would really enjoy seeing the Museum of Science Fiction.  Whoo hoo!  I think, I’ve been dying to see this for ages.[6] So off we go!

Now, let’s start with the building.  According to the EMP museum itself:

“When Frank O. Gehry began designing EMP, he was inspired to create a structure that evoked the rock ‘n’ roll experience. He purchased several electric guitars, sliced them into pieces, and used them as building blocks for an early model design.

EMPMcDA fusion of textures and myriad colors, EMP’s exterior conveys all the energy and fluidity of music. Three-thousand panels, made up of 21 thousand individually cut and shaped stainless steel and painted aluminum shingles, encase the outside of the building. Their individual finishes respond to different light conditions and appear to change when viewed from different angles, reminding audiences that music and culture is constantly evolving.”

So, we start with the fact that this building design is not about Science Fiction, nor even pop culture as a whole, but rather is about music.  OK.  Fine.  A museum has to be housed somewhere and to be honest, unless you know what you are looking at, this building just kind looks generically futuristic. Indeed, even once you know what you are looking at, you kind of have to squint to see the musically thematic elements to the building.[7] Even so, it’s kind of an interesting design and definitely get’s your attention even with the giant Space Needle next door.

empexteriorNow, unlike some of my friends, I like modern architecture and appreciate many of Gehry’s designs. This time, however, I was not impressed.  Oh, from the outside it was pretty cool, but in my view, one of the best elements of good artistic architectural design is including the vision and art into a pragmatic use of space and structure.  In this case, however, the interior spaces are a bunch of oversized box like rooms kind of haphazardly stacked on top of one another.  With cool curvilinear shapes to the exterior, why leave the interior a bunch of boxes with huge useless space in between?  No fusion of form and fashion; just a skin thrown on top of a warehouse of boxes.

GuitarSculptureStill, my family and I were excited going in.  Surrounded by guitar and piano motifs we grabbed a map and started to try to make our way to the Science Fiction part of the museum.  I cocked my head and quivered. I could not for the life of me make sense of this map.  Now, those of you who know me know that this is an unusual state of affairs.  After all, I was once known for my archaeological cartographic knowledge.  Not to be flummoxed, I go to an information kiosk and look at the map there.  Well… at least that told me where I was… though I could not figure out how any bit of space related to anything else because there were no names given to anything.  A bit put out, we made our way to an info booth…

Brilliant use of space... a theatre that one must pass through to get anywhere with no one in it...

Brilliant use of space… a theatre that one must pass through to get anywhere with no one in it…

“Oh, yes,” The woman brightly, cheerfully and to her credit professionally responded, “You just go down those stairs into the basement level and there you are!”

I look at the stroller containing my three year old son who is wiped out from three hours in the Children’s Museum.[8]

“Oh sorry, of course,” she responds, still smiling and doing her best, “Just take that elevator over there and go through the Horror exhibit and there you are!”

Once more, I look at the stroller containing my three year old son.

“Ah,” she says, “Okay, so go through that hallway over there and there is another elevator that will take you right down stairs.  It’s just around the corner.” [9]

“Right!” I say to my party of Sci Fi knowledge seekers, “Follow me!”

ConnAn elevator ride later, we turn the corner and behind a sort of neon framework worm-holey type entrance that is put at an odd angle to the door so you can’t quite figure out what it is, lies the first command conn of Captain Kirk’s Enterprise!  Next to it sit Uhura’s red uniform… beautiful and a fascinating way to greet one into an exhibit.  After all, museums often put prominent objects at their entrance to begin one’s experience.

After that, well… nothing.  Or rather, lots of things thrown, dare I say crammed, together into a single room with no narrative or real explanation.  Oh, there were descriptions of what each object was, and the objects themselves were lovingly displayed for view, but there was no logic to the way they were put together.  No themes or even categorical presentation.  God forbid there was no history there.

terminatorNow, I understand that in a museum of this sort you will only have a limited number of objects, but you can put them out with some form of informational themes that help one to understand or at least think about what they represent?

Say, put all the uniforms together with a little plaque that talks about the changing concepts of uniforms and costume design.  A range of lasers, blasters and ray guns displayed as they have changed through time with a discussion of how futuristic weapons have been envisioned over the ages.  Of how some designs, like Star War’s Blasters, differ radically from the more Ray-gun designs of earlier models, and how that represents the Director and  Art Director’s interpretations.  How it makes a bold statement that helped to distinguish Star Wars from previous films. How those designs changed subsequent weapon designs for decades.  Then how a generation later weapons from say, Stargate, actually recall the previous ray-gun like weaponry of the Golden Age.  Stuff like that.

Here is something they didn't have on display!

Here is something they didn’t have on display!

You don’t have to have original objects all the way through, reproductions and pictures will do fine (as long as you note when a repro is a repro).  What is important is that one feels one is learning something, experiencing something, not just looking at stuff.

To that end, perhaps a mention of the history and development of Science Fiction might be useful in a musuem… but no.  Nothing.  Though it could have been on some barely displayed plaque, I didn’t even see a mention of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells. Not mention of Jonathan Swift or how his use of Gulliver’s fantastic voyages served as social commentary in a manner still used by Science Fiction authors today.

Nope.  Just one room, full of cool but unexplained sci-fi stuff.

Oh, there was the Horror room next door, that had very cool clips from movies playing and footage Roger Coreman discussing the change in the genre.  Here was the Alien, there was a giant spider made out of repro Jason masks… this section though only one room, worked quite well.

dragonEMPUpstairs, in a totally different location from Science Fiction, there was also a Fantasy exhibit going on, with equally cool, but unanalyzed displays.  Yet this was separated from the Sci-Fi collection by a floor and a hallway through a labyrinth of giant open spaces, crammed away in another corner of a museum that was really dedicated to Rock music.

imagesNo… not Music, but Rock music, with a particular emphasis on Jimmi Hendrix.  Now, had I been on my own, I might have explored this, the bulk of the museum a bit.  But with a group of people from South America who have no real tie to this corner of American culture and with a whole city filled with marvelous things to see, including the very cool Museum of Science and Technology and the giant playground of a Children’s Museum to return to play in – needless to say I had no opportunity to see this, even if I’d really wanted to.

Exterminate the EMP!!!

Ex-ter-mi-nate the EMP!!! Nev-er mind! It is not worth it!

So we left the EMP feeling ripped off at an exorbitant entry fee for seeing a single room of stuff thrown together in a back corner.  We left with no new insights as to the history or ideas behind Science Fiction or Fantasy. No sense of wonder or fulfillment.  Really: if they’d served burgers we would have felt more excited – and my In-Laws are vegetarian.

There... now you've pretty much seen the whole exhibit.

There… now you’ve pretty much seen the whole exhibit.

End result?  I left with the sense that the EMP staff not only have no interest in Science Fiction or Fantasy, but they actively resent being asked to house the display.


[1] Foreshadowing…

[2] Though reports from reliable Seattle sources, such as computer system and web-wiz Charles Hamilton, suggest that it really hasn’t changed much from its previous incarnation.

[3] Well, some rock music.  Mostly Jimmi Hendrix

[4] Which is worlds more than you get walking into this museum.

[5] A recipe that could spell disaster, but actually was a marvelous vacation for all.

[6] Despite gentle warnings from Charlie, who after almost thirty years I should really have learned to listen to.

[7] Smashed Stratocaster guitar as viewed from the Space Needle?  I could see it, but only with a lot of my imagination flying full bore.

[8] A very cool interactive plays-space museum, though in need of some TLC.

[9] Now at this point, I would like to say that the staff were the high point of the museum. Professional, friendly and informative.  Kudos to them.

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About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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4 Responses to Sci Fi in Seattle: A Review of the Science Fiction Museum at the EMP, Seattle

  1. Very interesting . . . though I’m not sure if I want to go now or not. What a shame it’s not better handled. Perhaps you should offer to curate.

  2. Misty says:

    Thank you for the info on the new layout. I had heard that the beautiful SciFi museum at the EMP had been butchered, but I wasn’t sure what that really meant. 5 years ago, before it changed from the Sci Fi museum to the Icons of Science Fiction exhibit, it was glorious! A room full of toy robots from all through modern history, robots from movies arranged to show how our conceptions and depictions had changed over time, a room of star trek, and on and on. I spent hours wandering and finding new things. I was hoping to take my kids this year, but after reading this I think I just won’t. I’d rather remember it as it was. Why on earth did they gut it?!

    • Thomas Evans says:

      Now I am really sad! I would have loved to take my son there!

      I think they are presently managed by someone who fundimentally doesn’t get Sci Fi. The EMP is really a pop culture museum dedicated to rock music (particularly Hendrix) and I think they throw the Sci Fi museum in there as an add on.

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