You are here

From Burke Volunteer to EMP Curator

Story by
Nancy Joseph

As a UW student, Jacob McMurray excavated bison bones and arrowheads from sites in Wyoming and Montana. Now he’s digging up artifacts of a different sort for Seattle’s EMP Museum, from guitars played by Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain to exterior signs from defunct rock and blues clubs. “I went from rocks and bones to rock,” he jokes

Jacob McMurray with Bootsy and Patti Collins

Jacob McMurray (right) poses with funk musician Bootsy Collins and his wife Patti Collins during a 2009 EMP concert and screening of the documentary Rock Prophecies. Media credit: Courtesy of EMP Museum.

As an EMP curator, McMurray (BA, Anthropology, Danish Language and Literature, 1995) creates exhibits on everything from horror flicks to Seattle’s grunge music scene. The job is a perfect fit for the UW alum, who dabbled in a breathtaking array of topics as a student. He studied Danish and Swahili, The Qu’ran and the Finnish poetic epic The Kalevala, and took studio art courses on Northwest Native American illustration and carving.

“I loved that every quarter I could take something different,” McMurray says of his undergraduate experience. “It really opened me up to the possibilities of the world. I tried to take at least 18 credits a quarter—15 toward my degree and then something really weird and fun. I figured I’d never have an opportunity to explore like that again. Students who just stick to their core focus are missing so much.”

Jacob McMurray at the Burke

cob McMurray working at the Burke Museum during his undergraduate years. Media credit: Courtesy of Burke Museum, Archaeology.

McMurray arrived at the UW with an interest in archaeology—fueled by Indiana Jones movies—but enrolled in science and engineering courses that seemed more practical.  “After about one quarter of that, I decided it wasn’t actually for me,” he says.  “I decided to embrace my childhood love of archaeology and just go for it.” Through his anthropology major, he participated in an excavation in Wyoming and Montana as a summer field course.

McMurray also majored in Danish language and literature (in the Scandinavian Studies Department), inspired by his interest in Norse legends and Vikings. “I started in Norwegian but, preferring a smaller class, switched to Danish,” he says. “I wasn’t planning to turn it into a degree, but I just loved it. They were some of the most awesome classes.”

Despite his double major and heavy course load, McMurray also found time to volunteer at the Burke Museum under the tutelage of Julie Stein, now executive director of the Burke.  At the time, Stein, a professor of anthropology, had just taken over as curator of the museum’s archaeology collection.  She recruited McMurray to help catalog artifacts that had not been studied and needed their storage upgraded.

I tried to take at least 18 credits a quarter—15 toward my degree and then something really weird and fun. I figured I’d never have an opportunity to explore like that again.

“They’ve got more than a million objects in that collection,” recalls McMurray, “and a lot of them were stored on cardboard trays on shelving that reached to the ceiling, because even then the Burke was running out of space." (Artifacts are now appropriately stored in state-of-the-art cases.)

Jacob McMurray on a survey team

During Summer 1993, McMurray (far left) was part of a team that surveyed a proposed pipeline route near Longview, Washington. His Led Zeppelin t-shirt seems a fitting nod to his future EMP career.

The volunteer job turned into a paid part-time position with the Burke for several years, until grant funding ran out.   That’s when Burke staff used their connections to introduce McMurray to a curator at the Jimi Hendrix Museum, which later became EMP.  “I met the curator and talked about music,” recalls McMurray. “They were looking for a collections person, which was exactly what I’d been doing at the Burke.”

McMurray got the job, and spent his senior year dividing his time between academics, the Burke, and EMP. After graduation he moved to a full-time position at EMP as a collections assistant, acquiring Jimi Hendrix items and material related to the exploding Northwest music scene. 

Before long McMurray became a curatorial assistant, providing research for curators. Promotions to associate curator, curator, and senior curator followed. These days he curates one or two EMP exhibits each year, developing a storyline and concept, identifying artifacts, interviewing individuals connected to the topic, writing display text, and communicating with the press.

Jacob McMurray with Dave Grohl

Jacob McMurray (right) and musician Dave Grohl, of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame, bond in plaid at an EMP exhibit. Media credit: Courtesy of EMP Museum.

“I’ve done the last four Hendrix exhibits, I did the Nirvana exhibit that’s up right now, and Can’t Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film….” offers McMurray. “Right now I’m working on an exhibit about indie video games, which will open in November 2014.  I love the idea that it’s different every time. There’s always something interesting to learn. It’s all about trying to convey a story to the widest possible audience.”  The most challenging exhibit he’s curated? “That would probably be Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses,” says McMurray. “It was difficult to do an exhibit on a topic that is writ so large in Seattle, that means so much to so many people.”

McMurray credits Julie Stein and the Burke Museum with setting him on his career path. “The Burke was very fundamental to me, and Julie was as well. I wouldn’t have the job I have today without her recommendation.” He adds that, after two decades at EMP, he can’t imagine what else he’d do at this point. Fortunately he has no reason to look elsewhere.

“I feel really lucky to have this job,” he says. “It’s never boring. As long as it feels like a challenge, I’ll continue to stick with it.”