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Rock on(line)! Seattle’s Museum of Pop Tradition constructing digital ‘vault’ for 80,000 assortment gadgets

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A selection of artifacts from the Museum of Pop Culture collection, now visible 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 Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle has more than 80,000 pieces in its permanent collection, comprised of such artifacts as musical instruments, photographs, posters, clothing items, TV and movie props, and much more.

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

In a new push to make it all digitally accessible, MoPOP has begun the process of building out an online version of its “vault,” an effort that would create a significant pop culture resource.

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

“This is something that we’ve wanted forever,” MoPOP curatorial director Jacob McMurray told GeekWire.

McMurray has been there forever. He started as a cataloguer six years before the museum opened and the collection consisted of about 1,000 objects. His job at the time was to visit record stores and talk to collectors and gather worthwhile artifacts. There was a broad mandate from Allen to build the biggest Jimi Hendrix collection around and to grab anything related to the rock guitarist that was cool.

Twenty-eight years after McMurray started, Allen’s collection of items now belongs to his personal estate and MoPOP now functions as a nonprofit in charge of its own gathering of items — including lots of wider pop culture and science fiction pieces — curating displays and managing the vault.

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

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MoPOP collection artifacts, from left: A Beatles set list from 1962; a Nirvana set list handwritten by Dave Grohl, from 1993; and directions to the Isle of Wight Festival handwritten by Jimi Hendrix, Aug. 29, 1970. (MoPOP Photos)

The museum did previously have a “digital lab” which offered a deeper dive on items in the collection, but it was run on custom software that was eventually phased out.

Three years ago, McMurray started pushing hard to make inroads into having an online collection, as most museums do. MoPOP is using a database called The Museum System, or TMS, with a catalog plug-in called e-Museum.

The process is a slow one because of budgetary and staffing constraints.

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

“Obviously we’re not going to have all 80,000 objects released to the public immediately,” McMurray said.

Instead, he and his staff of curators have picked about six sub categories in the collection, and each of the curators was tasked with pulling 30 to 50 objects that they feel would be great to launch with. They’ve had to go through the process of writing mini essays for each of those objects, checking cataloging records for correct dates and names and getting everything photographed. (Click on an item’s “description” to find those writings).

The effort gained momentum after MoPOP got a grant from the Council on Library Information Resources (CLIR) to be able to hire a digital archivist. That person is cataloging every single one of MoPOP’s 2,400 hip-hop artifacts.

Right now, the online collection vault only features 213 items — but it’s easy to see how fun and valuable it will be to get lost in the files.

There’s a tattered handwritten set list from The Beatles from around 1962; there’s a Devo Energy Dome hat from 1980 and a knit hat worn by Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. Entries about guitars include instruments played by Woody Guthrie, Bo Diddley, and Gene Simmons of KISS. And there are pieces of guitars smashed and burned by Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

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

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

“I kind of love it,” McMurray said of the van. “It has such great history and we’ve got 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 by the streamlining of processes which should help speed research for future exhibits. And other departments at MoPOP can benefit from having online access to the vault, for blog posts, social media and more.

There is much work to be done — McMurray might have to stay another 28 years. At the time of writing, clicking on the grunge or Hendrix or sci-fi collections still takes users to the full collection. Some tagging needs to be sorted out in the coming week or two.

“We’re still doing lots of tweaks. We’ve basically done a soft launch,” McMurray said. “This is going to evolve as we get more and more stuff in there. We’re just trying to get it out there now just to see how people are interacting with it and how the usability is.”

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