Ragnarock museum: a timely and liberating step towards delivering innovative views about popular music

Of all of the museums of popular music that I have ever visited, Ragnarock, the museum for pop, rock and youth culture in Roskilde, Denmark, is for sure the one I have enjoyed the most so far, not just from the aesthetical point of view but also because it is the one whose narrative best conveys contemporary knowledge about popular music, knowledge gained from both popular music studies and ethnomusicology.

The permanent exhibition displays are of an unusual contemporaneity and remarkable design, thereby creating a very attractive and bold environment. Nevertheless, for museums to rely on innovative technology to convey their narratives is becoming more and more common sense. It is therefore the narrative itself that merits my highest praise, in that it completely departs from the approaches of conventional museums as regards music. More to the point, Ragnarock’s narrative reflects the current perspectives of music studies as an endeavour that approaches music as a cultural and social practice, i.e, a practice created not only by music and musicians but also by people using it to develop themselves as individuals with an identity, to build communities, and to produce and challenge societies. Furthermore, in conceptually placing a great emphasis on audiences as consumers of popular music throughout the whole narrative, the museum is ultimately conveying the idea that people do not need to be musicians to engage with and thereby participate in the production of popular music.

At the very beginning of the exhibition, an impressive and playful installation deliberately stimulates the audience’s interaction by submerging visitors in sound compositions and light showers, highlighting the role of light shows in the production of live music. Ultimately, this welcoming space conveys the curious understanding that in concerts sight and sound can easily became one and the same thing. Together with this, there is a text panel putting an emphasis on the perspectives that will be developed throughout the museum and which greatly coincide with the hallmarks of contemporary research about music: ‘[…] we hear about the music they [the Danish youth culture] believed in (highlighting the links between music and identities), and the community they made up (stressing the role music plays in building communities), the consumption they produce (conveying the idea of music as a commodity), and the society they challenged (stressing the ability of music to negotiate)’. This panel also acts as a table of contents, which unfolds into more specific themes such as the interrelationship between music and dance; the functions of music (music as rebellion; music as a way to promote political views; music as a way to convey Danish identity; music as a way to achieve power; music as a way to convey sexual identity); the communities of fans; music and industry; and finally, music and technology.

In addition to this, there is a historical room to which I give my greatest plaudits. In general, I find that it is very difficult, not only when I find myself just theorising about it but also throughout my visits to popular music museums all over the world, to innovatively address the history of popular music without being extremely extensive and boring, and without leaning on the assistance provided by the paraphernalia of objects and memorabilia – in a way that is very similar to long-standing museum practices. Ragnarock museum, however, seems to have devised the most synthetical and interesting solution I have ever seen in a single room specifically dedicated to this very subject. Recognising that musical innovation builds on traditions and that it is not possible to clearly delineate music genres in such a way that each can be clearly distinguished from the others, this historical room makes use of two vectors: wall and floor. On the wall, an extensive selection of songs is exhibited by means of a rectangle for each one, all aggregated in periods of time from the 1900s to today. Each song is reached by plugging a headset into the specific rectangle that represents it. Such an arrangement visually facilitates the understanding of music as a physical object (as much as a museum artefact with cultural meaning) by means of having each song occupying its own space. At the same time, on the floor, discursively counterpointing the rationale underlying the wall’s design, the names of several genres are depicted and then interlinked by means of arrows that lead to specific songs. This conveys the idea that genres are not actually God-given categories but are human-made groupings which, more importantly, exist much more as overlapping mixtures than as separate entities.

Throughout the whole exhibition, the panel texts are small, simple and effective: no superfluous words, no excessive explanations but just seminal ideas, and this ends up leaving a lot of room for other mediums to impart information. Accordingly, alongside the panel texts we find objects, awards, photographs, memorabilia and, first and foremost, sound and music, in the form of both interviews (actually, the narrative is greatly supported by ethnographic work) and pieces of music. Nevertheless, there are relatively few objects: objects are exhibited very much in the service of ideas rather than for their own wonder and uniqueness, as they might be if part of the narrative of a more conventional museum. If you are interested in seeing a collection of guitars and other instruments, this is really not the museum for you. Ideas about music are given primacy, while objects are instead given the role of tools for the explanation of ideas; indeed, it is the relationships among the sequenced objects that convey the ideas.

My less fulsome remarks are related to the emphasis placed by the exhibition on the word “youth” and the clear link established between this and pop-rock music. I believe this kind of connection is actually part of an out-dated understanding of popular music, a connection that the museum itself cannot prove to be true, seeing that the majority of its visitors are in the 40+ age group. This suggests that “older” visitors still make great use of popular music in their daily lives and come here more out of nostalgia.

Ragnarock is a bold, provocative and inspiring museum of popular music, and I cannot say that often enough. From my point of view, it is the best I have ever visited and, more importantly, the one I have found to be closest to offering a contemporary scientific approach to the exhibiting of popular music.


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