Olympia’s indie music scene, riot grrrls detailed in museum exhibit

Calvin Johnson from Beat Happening performs June 2, 1990, at the Chambers Prairie Grange.
Calvin Johnson from Beat Happening performs June 2, 1990, at the Chambers Prairie Grange. Courtesy

The Washington State History Museum’s newest exhibit details a revolution that might have begun right here in Olympia.

It was a revolution in how music was made and what it took to be a musician. The museum calls it “A Revolution You Can Dance To.”

The exhibit, opening Saturday at the museum in Tacoma, traces the evolution of Olympia’s indie music scene from riot grrrls to zines.

“These people made a huge impact not just on this small town, but throughout the country,” said Len Balli of Olympia, the exhibit’s curator.

“A Revolution You Can Dance To” spotlights records, posters, photos and guitars played by the likes of Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. There’s a listening booth and a zine-making station.

It’s colorful and a little bit messy, matching its focus on the do-it-yourself aesthetic.

“It’s about the fact that people did this is Olympia, and you can do this in your hometown,” said Balli, program facilitator at the State Capital Museum in Olympia, which has been closed for renovations since 2013. “You don’t have to be a big star. You don’t have to know a lot of people. You just have to be someone who wants to make it happen.”

The goal of the exhibit is to demonstrate how music, art and politics from bands creating music and performing in Olympia spread their influence statewide, regionally and then across the country, according to curators. It also looks at the role women had in this music revolution, how they helped transform culture, challenged societal norms and empowered young girls to find their artistic way in the world, according to the museum.

To those who remember life pre-Kurt Cobain, it might seem a little weird to think of Nirvana and Beat Happening as something to be highlighted in a history museum.

Among such exhibits, such as the one on the wisdom of indigenous people and another on the history of the Washington State Historical Society, this one does stand out.

But Balli didn’t run into any resistance when she proposed the exhibit.

“I didn’t need to talk anyone into it,” she said. “People were excited.”

One of those people was Krist Novoselic, the bass guitarist for Nirvana.

Last year, Novoselic of Naselle joined the Washington State Historical Society’s Board of Trustees. Former Secretary of State Sam Reed, also on the board, got to know Novoselic and suggested the musician join.

“Krist said he had always had an interest in Washington state history,” said Erich R. Ebel, a spokesman for the Washington State History Museum. “He’s very active in local cultural activities, and this interested him.”

“He is always up there helping,” Balli said. “He is great.”

While at the history museum, Novoselic got a look at some of the exhibit’s materials — in particular a photo of a Nirvana show in the library of The Evergreen State College — and he wanted to get more involved.

When historical society director Jennifer Kilmer asked him for ideas for funding the exhibit, he said he’d help and talk with former bandmate Dave Grohl and with Frances Cobain, daughter of Kurt Cobain, who died in 1994. Grohl agreed to pitch in.

“It was pretty amazing,” Balli said. “Not in our wildest dreams did we ever think two-thirds of Nirvana would be sponsoring an exhibit at the history museum.”

A Revolution You Can Dance To: Indie Music in the Northwest

What: A new exhibit at the Washington State History Museum examines the independent music scene in Olympia and beyond.

When: Saturday-April 23. The museum is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and till 8 p.m. the third Thursday of each month.

Where: Washington State History Museum, 911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma.

Tickets: Free with museum admission ($8-$12; free for museum members and children 5 and younger and free after 2 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month).

Gallery talk: Len Balli, the exhibit’s curator and program facilitator at the State Capital Museum in Olympia, will talk about the exhibit at 3 p.m. Oct. 7 at the Washington State History Museum.

Information: 888-238-4373, washingtonhistory.org.