When Jacob McMurray first went to work in 1994 on the initial development of Paul Allen’s dream for a music museum in Seattle, he was cataloging Jimi Hendrix records out of an office building in Bellevue, Wash.
Over the years, McMurray has changed positions about as many times as the Experience Music Project (etc.) has changed names. He’s been a curatorial assistant, researcher, associate curator and curator. McMurray is senior curator at what is now the Museum of Pop Culture, a job he’s held for 12 years, and he summed up his life’s work for us by saying, “I just get to be a big nerd and get paid for it.”
For that distinction alone, it’s easy to see why McMurray is GeekWire’s latest Geek of the Week.
During his time at MoPOP, McMurray has organized over 20 exhibitions covering many facets of popular culture, including:
- PUSH ME, PULL ME: Pearl Jam and the Art of the Screen Printed Poster
- Indie Game Revolution
- Hear My Train A Comin’: Hendrix Hits London
- Can’t Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film
- Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses
McMurray is also the author of “Taking Punk to the Masses: From Nowhere to Nevermind” (Fantagraphics, 2011), which documents the explosion of Grunge, the Seattle Sound, within the context of the underground punk subculture that was developing throughout the U.S. in the late 1970s and ’80s.
This weekend marks the opening of McMurray’s latest exhibition, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame at MoPOP. Gathering artifacts and the stories associated with the 108 inductees is just a natural progression for a guy who is already an avid collector and consumer of everything from comic books to video games. Having an interest in all sorts of geeky stuff is part of the territory in curating for a pop culture museum.
“I definitely was always a huge science fiction/fantasy fan — big reader, big movie watcher, big music fan as well,” McMurray sad. “I think a lot of the other topics we cover, it’s kind of an opportunity to nerd out on that topic whether I know it or not. For me it’s always really exciting to use the skills of storytelling to explore a new area of popular culture.”
McMurray is also well aware of the unique aspect of what he gets to show off to the public, and how it can differ from traditional museum content.
“One thing that we really try to focus on in our museum is just that idea that the stuff that we’re displaying, we’re not talking about going to see past masters of works that are 200 years old,” McMurray said. “We’re showing stuff that is part of people’s lives already. So when you look at Spock’s tunic, I think of watching the original ‘Star Trek’ with my dad in re-runs when I was little. As long as we can provide avenues for people to think [their] story is part of the exhibition, I think that’s a good thing.”
Outside of MoPOP, McMurray dabbles in graphic design, focusing on books and print ephemera. At points in what he calls the “increasingly distant past” he was an archaeologist, owned a screen printing studio, and founded a small independent publishing house. He lives in Seattle with his wife, two daughters, four chickens, one cat, and 50,000 honeybees.
Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Jacob McMurray:
What do you do, and why do you do it? “As the Senior Curator of MoPOP, I develop exhibitions on a wild range of geeky areas of pop culture. I come up with the exhibition narratives, guide the overall look and feel of the exhibition, find various collectors and borrow cool artifacts for display, do oral history interviews with myriad individuals for use in the exhibitions, write all of the interpretive text, and represent the exhibitions for the institution, the press, and the public.”
“I’ve worked in various positions at MoPOP for over 20 years now, and I love it because I get to merge my personal passions with my career and I get to share that with the public.”
What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “I think that the words ‘curator’ and ‘curated’ have become pretty overused and diluted in our culture. Being a curator and organizing exhibitions isn’t merely selecting objects and putting them on pedestals. For me it’s part art, part science, part craft. I view exhibitions in themselves as complex works of art that combine many different elements — resonant artifacts, stories from primary sources, compelling and distilled narratives, innovative exhibition design and graphic design, compelling interactive experiences, an evocative gallery score, elements of drama and whimsy — all into a package that is exciting, entertaining, and illuminating for an audience.”
Where do you find your inspiration? “I find my inspiration from all over the place. I check out a lot of museums. I take inspiration from contemporary art, from design, film, music. I have an inner catalog of all the cool things that I see and if there are way to implement those cool ideas in interesting ways in an exhibition I’m working on, I’m all for it.
“I also view each exhibition as an opportunity to take what worked in a previous exhibition and amplify that or take it to the next level in a future exhibition. To me it’s one, long, multi-exhibition, evolutionary process.”
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “I really couldn’t live without a whole suite of mobile-based productivity apps, like Slack, Workflowy, Trello, Airtable, Smartsheet, Onehub, etc. Being connected with the work and our team wherever I am is vital.”
What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “I work in a highly-collaborative environment, with a bunch of really creative people. Day-to-day, we are all over the place at the office, traveling, and working on various exhibitions and other projects. Our offices are set up to allow for informal meetings and easy flow of information. The museum itself is a uniquely-shaped Frank Gehry-designed wonder. We don’t have any galleries that are rectangular boxes — everything is very organic. Following suit, we want each of the exhibition spaces to feel like their own, unique environments, tailored toward the exhibition content and the experience we want the visitors to have. I like our galleries because they force you to think outside of the box.”
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Email is a scourge. I try and mitigate it by using things like Slack, but it still is overwhelming. I spend an hour each weekday morning, from 9 to 10am, solely focusing on getting my emails down. The rest of the day is then devoted to individual exhibitions and projects. It’s not a perfect solution, as I still get inundated, but my daily, focused chunk helps me keep email within manageable limits.
Mac, Windows or Linux? “Windows.”
Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Kirk. I think I’d probably really dislike him as a real person, but he’s still the best captain, IMHO.”
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Cloak of Invisibility. I’m much more interested in observing others than being in the spotlight.”
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “I would launch a nerdy small press of beautifully packaged genre-tinged projects that marry art and literature. Bound to fail financially, but oh the things we would make!”
I once waited in line for … “William Gibson during a signing on his ‘Virtual Light’ book tour. I was a broke student and couldn’t afford the book, but I did have a Philip K. Dick short story anthology with me. I gave it to Gibson for him to sign. He gave me a strange look, but then inscribed about Dick, “AN UTTER MADMAN” and signed his name. It was pretty awesome.”
Your role models: “Stefan Sagmeister, because of the risks he takes and how much of himself he includes in his art and design work. Noam Chomsky, because of how he unpacks the way the world works and is able to communicate that with an audience. Amy Goodman, because as a journalist she’s been singularly dedicated for decades in bringing to light marginalized voices in our society. Jeff Kleinsmith, because his beautiful and timeless poster design work inspired me to be a designer of things myself. My daughters Izzy and Eleanor, and my wife Sara, because they are good reminders that while I have a cool career, family is key.”
Greatest game in history “‘Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord.’ Maybe not the greatest game ever, but it was my first PC video game that I got for my 10th birthday in 1982. And I loved it.”
Best gadget ever: “I don’t know if this qualifies as a gadget, but I love my TWSBI Diamond 580AL fountain pen.”
First computer: “An Apple IIe with a monochrome screen, 64k RAM and one 5.25″ floppy drive.”
Current phone: “A very old HTC One M8 that is very in need of replacement.”
Favorite app: “I love the Slack app on my phone. I keep private channels and dump cool things that I see on the net into them for later inspiration.”
Favorite cause: “Planned Parenthood.”
Most important technology of 2016: “VR.”
Most important technology of 2018: “VR with actual compelling content.”
Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “I think being a decent and respectful person is key. The world is hard enough so don’t add to it by being a jerk.”
LinkedIn: Jacob McMurray