Jacob McMurray has been the Director of Curatorial Affairs at the vibrant Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) for just a few months, but he’s spent more than half his life at the museum. He was senior curator for 14 years, and the decade before that he held a myriad of positions: cataloger, researcher, associate curator, curatorial assistant, and curator. Now, as director, he oversees the curatorial vision of the institution, comes up with the yearly slate of exhibitions, and manages the curatorial, exhibitions, and collections teams.
After nearly 25 years curating thrilling exhibitions in fields as diverse as music, fashion, and gaming, what excites McMurray? Here, he reveals his most memorable exhibitions over the years, from a deep look at Nirvana to the humanizing stories behind independent games development, plus one of his favorite acquisitions and other Seattle museums he loves.
Gosh, there are so many cool things in the collection. One that I like a lot is that in 1999 I acquired Carrie Brownstein’s first electric guitar, an Epiphone G-310 (basically an SG). I got it directly from Carrie at the Yo Yo A Go Go Festival in Olympia. It was the guitar that she played throughout her time in Excuse 17 and for several years with Sleater-Kinney.
I kind of feel that any exhibition that I’m working on at the moment (whatever moment that is) is my favorite, but two that I’ve loved looking back are Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses and Indie Game Revolution.
With Nirvana, which opened originally in 2011, I had a solid two years to work on the exhibition, and it really turned into a community-based experience for me. We had a good collection of Nirvana memorabilia already, but I was able to work with 19 different lenders to create a really cool experience, placing Nirvana’s story within the context of the Northwest music scene and really what was happening in music in the Western world from the rise of Hardcore punk on. The Nirvana narrative often becomes solely a Kurt Cobain narrative, focused primarily on drug addiction, suicide, and high drama, but I saw a story that is equally there, a narrative of Kurt and Krist [Novoselic], growing up around Aberdeen, Washington, not necessarily having a ton of opportunities in their lives, and with a lot of talent, ambition, and sheer luck, becoming the biggest band in the world. And to me, that aspirational story was really appealing.
With Indie Game Revolution, which I curated in 2014, it was the first time that we had incorporated, substantively, video games into what we showcased at the museum. I had decided that I wanted to focus on independently created/produced video games as the exhibition topic, rather than huge AAA games. These smaller games really highlighted that idea of personal creativity to me. Many of the games I’ve displayed over the years (we rotate out games frequently) are produced by single individuals or small teams from all around the world, and as a visitor, I think it’s really easy to see how you could do that too. And that’s what I love—the idea that we could provide a platform for people to be inspired and want to participate in this world of weird, nerdy, passionate popular culture.
Additionally, besides the games themselves, I ended up interviewing more than 50 developers, artists, composers, and other folks involved in the wider gaming space, and made sure those human stories were in the gallery, as they were often as interesting or more interesting than the games themselves. In the end, my goal was to argue that video games have every potential to be just as powerful an experience as the best of literature, music, and other art forms. In fact, there’s no question that they are art.
Seattle has lots of cool museums. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Burke Museum, as I started out my museum career working there, and their new space that is opening later this year is amazing. MOHAI, SAM, Northwest African American Museum, the Wing Luke Museum, the Frye Art Museum, the Henry Art Gallery, Museum of Flight—I love them all.
See Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses and Indie Game Revolution at MoPOP with your Seattle Museum Month passes. Jacob’s other favorite museums are also all part of the 2019 Seattle Museum Month, except the Burke Museum, which is currently closed as they move into their brand new home, opening late 2019.
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