The story of Nirvana's rise from Aberdeen to the world stage

Kurt Cobain's well-worn yellow cardigan, hand-written lyrics, and the band's guitars (both intact and smashed onstage) are among artifacts on display beginning Saturday (April 16) at EMP.

Crosscut archive image.

A cardigan sweater often worn by Kurt Cobain is prepared for display.

Kurt Cobain's well-worn yellow cardigan, hand-written lyrics, and the band's guitars (both intact and smashed onstage) are among artifacts on display beginning Saturday (April 16) at EMP.

Last week marked the 17th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death and the abrupt end of Nirvana — a band that changed the face of music and became the voice of a generation in the process. On Saturday (April 16), nearly 20 years after the release of Nirvana’s breakthrough record "Nevermind," Experience Music Project will celebrate Cobain, Nirvana, and the scene that allowed a little band from Aberdeen take over the world with the exhibit "Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses."

Featuring more than 200 Nirvana artifacts, the exhibit is being billed as the most comprehensive Nirvana exhibit in the world. All of Nirvana’s living principal players — Krist Novaselic, Dave Grohl and Courtney Love — were involved in its creation, and when it opens it will likely make the museum a musical Mecca for the hundreds of thousands of people impacted by Nirvana’s music.

The exhibit is meant to tell the "public and personal story of Nirvana within the context of the independent, underground music scene that evolved in the United States throughout the 1980s," peaking with the release of "Nevermind" in 1991, according to the museum. Some of the items on display include:

  • Cobain’s high-school painting of two aging, Reagan-era punks in the post-apocalypse, informally known as “punk American gothic.”
  • The TEAC reel-to-reel tape machine owned by Mari Earl, Cobain’s aunt, on which a young Cobain recorded material for his early bands, Organized Confusion and Fecal Matter.
  • Cobain’s handwritten lyrics for Nirvana songs including “Spank Thru” and “Floyd the Barber."
  • Pieces of the first guitar Cobain destroyed onstage (a Univox Hi-Flyer), along with Grohl’s Tama Rockstar-Pro drum kit, and two of Novoselic’s instruments: a Guild acoustic bass and a Buck Owens American acoustic guitar used during the recording of “MTV Unplugged.”
  • The yellow cardigan often worn by Cobain between 1991 and 1994.
  • The winged angel stage prop featured on Nirvana’s In Utero tour.
  • Candid snapshots capturing the band’s early years, from its beginnings in Aberdeen to the frenzy that erupted after "Nevermind."

The entry point is an area called “Building the infrastructure,” which examines groups like Husker Du, DOA and other '80s underground punk groups. From there the installation traces the path of Nirvana’s career through videos, oral histories, and artifacts selected by EMP curator Jacob McMurray.

“It’s particularly exciting for me because I have 2,500 square feet to not only tell the story of Nirvana, but to also couch that story within what was happening throughout the Northwest and the U.S. from the rise of punk rock on,” McMurray said during an interview late last year, while the exhibit was being prepped for installation.

“So we get to explore all of the things that needed to be in place, this creative underground infrastructure all across the United States, in order for a band like Nirvana to even exist and break out of the underground and reach the mainstream.”

Along with housing hundreds of artifacts, the exhibit also has multiple interactive elements. In several areas called “media lounges,” visitors can use tables with touchscreens to learn more about Nirvana and the punk scene from the 1980s, listening to selections from the back catalog of SST Records.

Another interactive aspect includes a video "confessional" area where visitors can record their own stories about what Nirvana means to them. Clips from the confessionals will be shown as part of the exhibit, interspersed with live footage of Nirvana. Incorporating participatory elements into "Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses" was important to McMurray.

“A music scene is at least half participation if you factor in the audience and the fans, so we’re trying to incorporate our audience and fan community as an active part of this story. We’re saying here’s the story of the bands and the clubs, but we want to hear your story, too, because you were a part of it,” he said.

McMurray said the highlight of working on the exhibit was getting to go through Krist Novoselic’s personal archives.

“We’ve got ton of broken guitars and iconic Charles Peterson prints, and lots of that type mythical ephemeral of rockness, but Krist had hundreds and hundreds of photos dating back to 1985. Being able to see those types of candid, normal photos of these three guys who were in their teens and 20s who just wanted to be in a band and get drunk sometimes and travel around and play rock 'n' roll was very exciting,” he said.

“It showed what happened to them was an amazing confluence of events. It was something that shows you could be in the right place and time and have the right attitude and something like that could happen to you, and that for me was pretty inspiring.”

If you go: "Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses," opens Saturday (April 16) and will be on display until April 2013 at Experience Music Project, 325 Fifth Ave. N. Tickets cost $15 for adults ($12 for children and seniors) and are available at the box office, by phone (206-770-2702) or online.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors