How To Honor a Lost Connection


Written by TeenTix Newsroom Writer VADA CHAMBERS and edited by Teen Editorial Staff Member AAMINA MUGHAL

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A green sign on a black wall of MoPOP’s Gone Too Soon exhibit, guest curated by Nabila Ahmed, asks questions like “What was your first reaction to this person’s death?” and “Did their death change the way you took in their work?”

These questions are designed for those old enough to remember the night when Robin Williams died, the day Kurt Cobain died by suicide, and the day Biggie Smalls was murdered. On the August night Robin Williams had taken his own life, my first thought was of his role as John Keating in Dead Poets Society. It seemed ironic, and deeply sad, that the teacher who had tried to save Neal hadn’t been able to save himself.

Like most people, I feel attached to celebrities, to people I’ve never met. It’s a cerebral thing, to wonder about that connection, to wonder how you’d feel about those people if the story had ended differently. That’s what Gone Too Soon seeks to explore—how death can immortalize, and how it can make something more meaningful.

Gone Too Soon, is a mini-exhibit tucked away at the end of MoPOP’s Massive exhibit, shrouded in darkness, illuminated by a few solitary spotlights and a lonely TV. The exhibit displays important artifacts from memorable pop culture icons who left at the peak of their popularity and asked how their deaths impacted their work. The TV in the corner blares news stories from mourning fans and a shocked nation—here, The Notorious B.I.G., Robin Williams, and Kurt Cobain’s deaths are presented as the most important pieces of their legacies, the thing that cemented them in public memory forever.

But MoPOP’s execution of the exhibit detracts from the value of it. The only way you can get to this little exhibit is by squeezing through the crowded hallways, jam-packed with Barbies, Batmans, and Britney Spears. Pop culture is so broad, and overall MOPOP does a great job at picking pieces that have truly impacted most of the population; making viewers “ooh” and “ahh” at important pieces of their childhood. But they lean towards nostalgic things, happy things. In that way, this exhibit makes sense as a more serious take, but there’s something odd about fighting through jam-packed color to this bare, almost funeral-esque exhibit in the back.

A Barbie from MoPOP’s permanent collection, 5/4/2024, Gone Too Soon, Massive: The Power of Pop Culture. Museum of Pop Culture. Photo by Vada Chambers

Another thing that prevents visitors from truly reflecting on these figures is the clumsy way the curator described Kurt Cobain’s death. The plaque beneath his clothes states that Cobain “unalived” himself, which, on top of being a crass attempt at audience appeal, is misaligned with the rest of the exhibit. On other plaques, they state “suicide” plainly. This mistake reflects MoPOP’s conflicting priorities—they attempt to appeal to teenagers, but this language diminishes the message the rest of the exhibit is trying so hard to create. It’s jarring and out of place.

Inside the exhibit itself, there are so many interesting philosophical questions available—does death absolve people of wrongdoing? Does death impact the perception of their work, is it something like rose-colored glasses? And how does the public jump on certain details? It’s so easy to say Robin Williams died from depression, but the plaque brings to attention the Lewy body dementia they found after his death, which likely contributed. This was something I didn’t know and helped me understand what the exhibit was trying to do—to communicate that celebrities are their people, no matter how much the population idolizes them. The exhibition of only clothes was also fascinating. There was an idea of height and how standing next to them would feel. The exhibit displayed proof of life, the shells where these figures lived.

However, it felt unfinished and small. In so many more of MoPOP’s exhibits, there is a clear effort to make an experience, a statement to the world they’re trying to remind viewers of. The science fiction exhibit is underground, beeping and buzzing, there are interactive tunnels in the Fantasy exhibit, and even the rest of Massive is full of screens and pink lights, mimicking the overwhelming feeling of pop culture. Feeling connected to other people by feeling connected to certain stories and people is what MOPOP is all about—guest curators should exercise the same effort to convey that as they do in the more “fun” exhibits. Without something like testimonials from people impacted by these deaths, the exhibit seems like an afterthought. There is an entire Nirvana exhibit that is well crafted, beautiful, and full of interesting facts and items—I get the feeling Kurt’s hat and coat belong in there, instead of in this nearly-empty room.

Overall, the idea of the exhibit was incredibly moving, and for someone intending to pay attention to it, it was very informative. But for the average viewer? There’s something missing. These people were larger-than-life, and this exhibit fell short of reflecting that—for all their presence as creatives and deeply passionate people, this exhibit appeared flat and boring next to the presence of MoPOP’s reputation.

Lead Photo Credit: Jumpsuit worn by Robin Williams as Mork from Ork in Mork & Mindy, 5/4/2024, Gone Too Soon, Massive: The Power of Pop Culture. Museum of Pop Culture. Photo by Vada Chambers

The TeenTix Newsroom is a group of teen writers led by the Teen Editorial Staff. For each review, Newsroom writers work individually with a teen editor to polish their writing for publication. The Teen Editorial Staff is made up of 5 teens who curate the review portion of the TeenTix blog. More information about the Teen Editorial Staff can be found HERE.

The TeenTix Press Corps promotes critical thinking, communication, and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. For more information about the Press Corps program see HERE.

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