MoPop, Seattle: Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder's temple to sci-fi, horror and rock'n'roll

"That's gross," says the young woman next to me.

I know what she means. We're standing looking at a collection of decapitated heads, laid out in a series of fish tanks, each face frozen in a grotesque, pained expression.

Fortunately, they're not real. Fans of hit horror show The Walking Dead will recognise the scene from the office of "The Governor", played by David Morrissey, who kept a collection of zombie heads for his amusement.

It's just one of the macabre exhibits in the "Scared to Death" section of Seattle's Museum of Popular Culture, an area dedicated to horror films and featuring props and costumes used in dozens of the major horror films from the past few decades, including the likes of Friday the 13th, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street.

Vicious weapons, hanging bodies and horrifying monsters abound. It's no wonder the sign outside warned that this exhibition was rated "PG-13".

But horror is just one of the many themes explored at MoPop. The private museum's focus follows the passions of its late creator, Paul Allen.

When Microsoft co-founder Allen died earlier this month, age 65, much was made of his work creating the software giant with Bill Gates, his ownership of two major sports teams and his philanthropy. But his role in creating one of Seattle's most popular tourist attractions registered only as a footnote.

Allen created MoPop in his home town essentially to showcase his personal collection of memorabilia from two of his favourite things: science fiction and rock'n'roll. In fact, the museum was originally split into two separate venues: The Experience Music Project and the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame.

The museum broadened its scope and became MoPop in 2016. Now it hosts more than 750,000 visitors annually.

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The building itself looks like something out of science fiction, created by legendary contemporary architect Frank Gehry, who famously designed the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. All curves and metallic surfaces, the three-storey, 13,000 square-metre structure sits adjacent to Seattle's other futuristic icon, the Space Needle. However, Gehry himself has said the design is more inspired by the shape of guitars – smashed guitars, to be precise.

Allen was a huge rock'n'roll fan, who, after quitting his role at Microsoft initially to focus on his health, went on to spend more time playing guitar and even recorded several albums in his own studio. His love of music is apparent in the museum, with the "Experience Music" wing offering interactive exhibits that allow visitors to experiment with guitars, drum loops and various other instruments.

Seattle's own rock history is well remembered, with halls dedicated to two of the city's most famous sons, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix. Both exhibits feature instruments, hand-written notes and lyrics and, in Hendrix's case, some flamboyant and memorable costumes.

I follow the creeped-out young woman out of the horror exhibit and into the science fiction hall. Here I find props and costumes from virtually every major science-fiction movie and TV show of the past 50 years. Star Wars, Alien, Doctor Who, The Terminator, even Gort, the iconic robot from 1951's classic The Day the Earth Stood Still is here.

And Star Trek, of course. Captain Kirk's command chair from the show was reportedly one of Allen's favourites items. The original series first aired in 1966, when Allen was just 13. It's not hard to imagine that his interest in science and computers may have been sparked by seeing that show, where there was a computer terminal in every room. A computer in every home was part of Allen's vision, a revolutionary idea it took his friend Bill Gates some time to come around to. 

And seeing the wide-eyed kids exploring his museum more than 50 years later, I wonder how many future scientists, engineers – and rock stars – might be finding their own spark of inspiration right here, right now.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/seattle 

Visitseattle.com 

FLY

Qantas flies from Australia's east coast capitals to Los Angeles, with connections to Seattle via various US airlines. See www.qantas.com.au 

VISIT

The Museum of Popular Culture is open 10am-5pm most days, with closures on some public holidays. Adult entry is $US28 ($US26 if you book online in advance) with an additional $US8 charge for entry to special temporary exhibitions. See mopop.org

The writer flew to Seattle as a guest of Qantas.

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