Play it Loud, instruments of Rock & Roll: towards an understanding of musical instruments as a ‘humanly organized and culturally based phenomenon’ [1]

Play it Loud is an exhibition dedicated to the musical instruments which have been the hallmark of Rock & Roll and to the iconic musicians that have used them throughout the history of Rock and Roll music. It is being staged at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (colloquially The Met), a museum known for collecting and presenting works of art ranging from classical antiquity and Ancient Egypt to great Masters from all around the world. At first glance, a museum like The Met showing artifacts related to musical practices deemed rebellious might appear surprising and controversial. Such an exhibition, nonetheless, is in continuity with The Met’s approach, in that the museum has long been developing encyclopaedic collections of musical instruments, costumes and accessories from musical practices around the world. At the same time, the fact that The Met is holding this exhibition is not surprising in that, given every year there appears an exhibition around such a topic almost everywhere, it has become remarkable in recent times for a museum to stage an exhibition about popular music.

Whereas some people have no reservations about museums exhibiting Rock & Roll themes because such music is sufficiently old (at least 70 years) to be given a place, others claim that such music is incompatible with the museum’s profile and assumptions. They see museums as classical and formal institutions and rock music, innately rebellious, to be at the opposite pole. I do not agree with either of these positions. Firstly, it is important to note that contemporary museum practices have been eager to develop both fresh and multidisciplinary approaches to traditional subjects and to embrace more contemporary and challenging themes and concerns, an approach that has helped to restore the more conventional understandings of what a museum is and to what its purpose is . On the other hand, it is not because Rock & Roll is now 70 years old that it should be in the museum. The heart of the issue is that Rock & Roll, and virtually any genre of popular music, is a vital part of the social dynamics of the human species and, as such, should be taken into consideration when a given culture is represented in a museum, as is already the case with other cultural practices such as painting, ceramics, tapestry and many others.

Anyway, I now move on to my analysis of Play it Loud as an exhibition. It results from a collaboration between The Met and The Rock & Roll House of Fame and Museum in Cleveland and appears in the context of the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. To be specific, it examines the Rock and Roll instrumental toolkit in relationship to iconic musicians through featuring more than 130 finely crafted instruments dating from as early as 1939. As an exhibition that draws mainly on examples of material culture, it is deemed to fall into the visually driven genre. What is interesting, however, is that it has adopted display strategies of the performatively driven genre [2]. There are many other arguments worth mentioning about this exhibition and it is worthy of a deeper and more detailed analysis, but this is beyond the scope of this post. Accordingly, I will curtail my discourse to what I believe are its most positive and negative features.

My fiercest criticism is based on the fact that no care seems to have been taken to make explicit which rationales underlie the selection of iconic instruments and influential musicians across seventy decades of Rock & Roll. In other words, who are the curators and where does their selection come from? I should point out that I am not against or in favour of the presented selection; I am not, moreover, against an exhibition resulting from a very personal point of view or taste, if that is the case. Virtually any exhibition should be possible on the condition that its motivations and rationales are made explicit. Curators have to keep in mind that museum-goers love some kind of sorting and interpretation about a given reality, a definitive narrative that puts them at peace and that this, together with a high respect for museums, naturally disposes museum-goers to absorb museum narratives uncritically.

My most favourable comments relate to the fact that Play it Loud is not only designed for the museum-goer to become aware of the morphology of the musical instruments, which is the usual approach in music museums and exhibitions, but to provide information in other fields of meaning that result from the understanding that these instruments are entangled in a web of cultural relationships.  This is in line with more contemporary views on how to exhibit musical instruments that have stressed the need to ‘[…] look to the multifarious and far-reaching relationship between music, culture, and technology, a complex, intense, and interacting network […]’ (Dawe 2012, 197). In Play it Loud, the approach to musical instruments does not follow the more in-field study as developed by Merriam and Qureshi, which seeks to provide us with rich insights into how musical instruments intertwine with emergent technologies not only to convey identity, power and emotion while defining a body’s movements, but also to express cultural beliefs, values and ideas and to change soundscapes (Dawe 2012). However, the exhibition stands as an interesting example that draws attention to how Rock and Roll instrumental toolkit is integrated with Rock and Roll culture in the widest sense, thereby presenting the instruments from a variety of angles. To be precise, it explores not only the instruments’ craftsmanship and design but also the instruments as elements of the musicians’ visual identity and how these have become integral to stagecraft. It also looks at sonic perspectives, namely how the technical development of the instruments has facilitated new sounds and new cultural significance, and how the bands have expanded to encompass guitars, basses, drums and keyboards.

Play it Loud is thus an exhibition that leads towards a more contemporary understanding of musical instruments as a ‘humanly organized and culturally based phenomenon’[1].


[1] Expression coined by Kevin Dawe (2012)

[2] For further understanding of the museum genres visually driven and performatively driven please see my article: Cortez, Alcina. 2019. Performatively Driven: A Genre for Signifying in Popular Music Exhibitions, Curator, 62(3): 343-366.


Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstein, 1975


Dawe, Kevin. 2012. “The Cultural Study of Musical Instruments.” In The Cultural Study of Music, a Critical Introduction, edited by Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert and Richard Middleton, 195-205. New York and London: Routledge.



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