The EMP is currently running an exhibit entitled "Women Who Rock". As a woman, a local, and a music fan I was really excited for this to open. I brought two female friends from out of town to see it, expecting the same caliber of museum interpretation that the EMP has provided to me in the past. It didn't live up to those expectations.
As you approach you're struck with an overwhelming amount of pink. I would have preferred a less gender stereotypical color palette, but I'm willing to let that slide. Joan Jett presides over the entrance with a guitar slung across her shoulder and a truly rock and roll attitude. It filled me with excitement and hope that this would live up to my expectations. Upon entry, however, my hope faded. It was a room of dresses. Dresses everywhere. Frilly dresses, sparkly dresses, revealing dresses, matronly dresses. A few pantsuits, some leather jackets, and accessories. Is this all women in rock and roll bring to the table?
There is a lot riding on an exhibit focused solely on women. I believe that it is important to explore alternative narratives in all museums and that can be challenging. Women and minority groups have traditionally been ignored in history and it is the responsibility of museums to give them a voice. That can be too much for some to handle, as was clearly the case here. The EMP had an opportunity to talk about women artists in real terms. The challenges they face, their moments of success and failure, their interactions with male peers and the public. Instead they showed off their closets.
The EMP houses excellent exhibits focused on Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana, neither of which focus solely on their style. Sure, it is a topic, but in no way the primary one. These male artists are given space for their instruments, memorabilia, and concert posters. The exhibits have interactive consoles for visitors to sit and listen to the music. In "Women Who Rock" their instruments (if any are present) are overshadowed by the costumes. No interactive displays and few actual audio recordings are available. It is a parade of pretty clothes.
The only display of a female artist which featured no clothing whatsoever was that of Yoko Ono. A pair of sunglasses, a poster, and some handwritten notes accompanied the text. It was much smaller than other featured spaces and was out of place across from the sparkly nude getup worn by Britney Spears at the 2000 VMAs. (Don't get me started on artists like Britney Spears and Taylor Swift being "Women Who Rock".) It was the only display that focused on her work as opposed to her style.
Were they trying to appeal to a different demographic than I was expecting? Or is this really what they think women in music is all about? Perhaps this should have been titled "Fashion and Rock". It concerns me that this exhibit so drastically differed from my expectations when the rest of the EMP usually impresses me. Something this far off base seems almost intentional. What exactly is the message they're trying to send?
This was a massive disappointment to me. I was looking for a thoughtful discussion of the impact women have had on the history of rock music. Instead I got a fashion show. It was a great fashion show, but not at all what I wanted.