Photo by Dusty Henry

The Washington State History Museum Lets You Experience the Origins of DIY IRL

‘A Revolution You Can Dance To’ Revisits Olympia’s ’90s Underground Music Explosion

Amuseum can feel stuffy sometimes—but one way to spice it up is with footage of K Records founder Calvin Johnson sashaying. The Washington State History Museum’s latest exhibit, A Revolution You Can Dance To: Indie Music in the Northwest, does just that. The exhibit, which runs through next April 23, tells the story of the DIY music and arts movement that came out of Olympia in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

“We’re focused on anything that’s involved in the history of Washington state, whether it be 200 years ago or 20 years ago,” says Erich Ebel, marketing and communications director for the Washington State Historical Society. “This was something that was unique to the Washington state area—all of these local bands and this underground indie-music scene spontaneously starting in the Olympia area.”

Sponsored by Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, the exhibit features a breadth of artists ranging from Beat Happening and Witchiepoo to riot-grrrl staples Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. The artists themselves were crucial in providing photos and show posters. However awesome it is to see archives from this landmark era for underground music, it’s the interactive portions of A Revolution You Can Dance To that immerse people in what it really was like to be a part of the scene. “We really don’t want to put on an exhibit that’s sterile,” Ebel says. “We want people to interact with an exhibit. We want people to get their hands dirty and feel like they’re a part of the piece of history that we’re trying to highlight.”

They do this in three ways. One is by virtually placing you into ’90s Olympia with a green-screen booth that superimposes your photo into a variety of locales: in line to see a show at the Capitol Theater, in the middle of the Yoyo-A-Go-Go parade, or front row at a Witchiepoo show. The “listening booth” takes the form of a messy apartment, complete with empty pizza boxes. Visitors are encouraged to sit in the raggedy chairs and listen to a playlist of local artists, including Dub Narcotic Sound System, Mirah, the Melvins, and more recent acts like the Microphones. Most exciting is a zine-making station. Humble in appearance, the tabletop area provides prestapled booklets with pencils, tape, and magazines to cut out. Everyone is encouraged to make their own zine and fill it with whatever they like.

“The takeaway is that any one of us with a dream can do something similar,” Ebel says. “Any one of us can have an impact in the smallest of places that can have a ripple effect and affect, really, the whole world. And that’s really the takeaway that I’m hoping visitors leave with—that positive feeling of encouragement.” Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, washingtonhistory.org. $8–$12.

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