Rock online! Seattle Museum of Pop Culture is building a digital ‘vault’ for 80,000 collectibles

A selection of artifacts from the collection of the Museum of Pop Culture, now viewable online, from left: 1968 guitar owned by Jimi Hendrix and played at Woodstock; vintage cardigan sweater owned by Kurt Cobain; snakeskin platform shoes owned by Elton John; Hubley Atomic Disintegrator Ray Gun; harmonica played by Howlin’ Wolf. (MoPOP photos)

the Pop Culture Museum in Seattle has more than 80,000 pieces in its permanent collection, made up of artifacts such as musical instruments, photographs, posters, clothing, television and movie props, and more.

The museum, which was originally started by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen as the Experience Music Project in 2000, only has room to display a tenth of 1% of the collection, including 99 % is related to music.

In a further push to make all of this digitally accessible, MoPOP has begun the process of building a online version of its “safe”, an effort that would create an important pop culture resource.

A Heart tour jacket worn by Ann Wilson in 1977. (MoPOP Photo)

“It’s something we’ve always wanted,” MoPOP director of conservation Jacob McMurray told GeekWire.

McMurray has been around forever. He started as a cataloger six years before the museum opened, and the collection consisted of around 1,000 objects. His job at the time was to visit record stores, talk to collectors and collect valuable artifacts. There was a broad mandate from Allen to build the biggest collection of Jimi Hendrix and to capture everything cool related to the rock guitarist.

Twenty-eight years after McMurray’s debut, Allen’s collection of artifacts is now owned by his personal estate, and MoPOP now operates as a non-profit organization responsible for its own collection of artifacts – including many pieces of broader pop culture and science fiction – curating exhibitions and managing the skip.

“Our scope as a museum has expanded a bit beyond music and we’re trying to make sure the collection reflects what we do and also brings it to the present,” McMurray said.

Artifacts from the MoPOP collection, left to right: a 1962 Beatles set list; a Nirvana set list handwritten by Dave Grohl, dating from 1993; and directions to the Isle of Wight festival handwritten by Jimi Hendrix, August 29, 1970. (MoPOP Photos)

The museum previously had a “digital lab” that offered a deeper dive into items in the collection, but it ran on custom software that was eventually scrapped.

Three years ago, McMurray began striving to have an online collection, as most museums do. MoPOP uses a database called The Museum System, or TMS, with a catalog plugin called e-Museum.

The process is slow due to budgetary and personnel constraints.

Jacob McMurray
MoPOP’s Jacob McMurray in the vault, holding a 1965 Fender Jazzmaster, played by Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis (Courtesy of Jacob McMurray)

“Obviously, we’re not going to release the 80,000 objects made public immediately,” McMurray said.

Instead, he and his team of curators selected around six subcategories from the collection, and each of the curators was tasked with picking 30-50 items they felt good with for launch. They had to go through the process of writing mini-essays for each of these objects, checking catalog records for correct dates and names, and photographing everything. (Click on the “description” of an article to find these writings).

The effort gained momentum after MoPOP secured a grant from the Council on Library Information Resources (CLIR) to hire a digital archivist. This person lists each of MoPOP’s 2,400 hip-hop artifacts.

Currently, the Online Collection Vault only contains 213 items, but it’s easy to see how fun and valuable it will be to get lost in the files.

There’s a ragged one handwritten setlist the Beatles circa 1962; there is a Devo energy dome 1980 hat and a knit beanie worn by Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Inputs on guitars include instruments played by Woody Guthrie, Bo Diddleyand Gene Simmons by KISS. And there are pieces of guitars broken and burned by Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

A 1986 Chevrolet Beauville pickup truck in the MoPOP collection, used by Soundgarden from 1988 to 1990, and also used by the bands Alice in Chains and Screaming Trees. (Photo MoPOP)

Some items are too large to fit on a physical shelf but take up minimal space online, such as a Chevrolet Beauville Pickup Truck used by the band Soundgarden and previously owned by guitarist Kim Thayil.

“I love it,” McMurray said of the van. “He has such a great story and we have great oral history footage of Kim talking about the van.”

McMurray’s goal is to bolster the eventual online offering with oral and video footage that the museum also has in the collection. He’s excited about the streamlining of processes that should help speed up research for future exhibits. And other MoPOP departments can benefit from online vault access, for blog posts, social media and more.

There’s a lot of work to be done – McMurray might have to stick around for another 28 years. At the time of writing, clicking on the grunge or Hendrix or sci-fi collections always takes users to the full collection. Some markings need to be sorted within the next week or two.

“We are still making a lot of adjustments. We basically did a soft launch,” McMurray said. “It will evolve as we get more and more stuff in there. We’re just trying to release it now just to see how people interact with it and how usable it is.