The museum and popular music: spectacle or dialogue?

Exhibitionism is a travelling exhibition that pays tribute to a long-lasting band followed by many devoted fans: The Rolling Stones. It is going to be on display worldwide for four years and was first displayed at the Saatchi Gallery in London from 29th April to 4th September 2016.

The exhibition left me with the belief that it is no longer possible to maintain that museums have long been avoiding dealing with popular music themes, nor even that heritagising them is an innovative and untested museum practice. On the contrary, I would say that organising an exhibition about popular music by calling upon, at some point, the exhibition of sound and/or music has clearly proved a successful practice with great impact. Even more, I would say it has become an approach every museum seeks to profit from, if it has assertive marketing and if it in some way pays attention to, if not innovative, at least the latest opportunities. Accordingly, plenty of museums have been jumping on this bandwagon with the aim of making an extraordinary critically acclaimed show, without carefully exploring the opportunities that museums’ curators can be provided with, in order to deliver truly dialogic narratives about the theme.

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What does it mean to be immersive?

Although I have consistently maintained that there is no established and tested practice of exhibiting popular music in museums, I believe the time has come to renew this discourse, at least with regard to Western museum practice, where, indeed, popular music exhibitions have become increasingly common. While in the beginning these were displayed at some marginal or smaller culture institutions, nowadays they are flourishing in acknowledged and institutional museums, particularly in the form of tribute narratives. An example of this practice is the exhibition I saw in Paris, The Velvet Underground, New York Extravaganza, on display at the Philharmonie until 26th August 2016.

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Everything that museum professionals have long been waiting for a museum exhibition to achieve but which has not yet been invented.

The only possible way to start my essay about the installation-work The Visitors by Ragnar Kjartansoon, on display in The Broad Museum in Los Angeles, is by highlighting the memorable way I experienced it, as well as the exhilaration, passion and pleasure that I felt. I became even more delighted when I realised that, in addition to the rewarding experience I had had, the installation-work also accomplishes two things that are, it seems to me, of particular significance today. On the one hand, it achieves one of the most demanding goals of contemporary museum studies in that it provides the museum-goers with avenues not to learn or contemplate but to experience some dimensions of life. On the other hand, although it was certainly not an intentional gesture by the curator, The Visitors is particularly interesting in that the experience it provides visitors with is theoretically informed by ethnomusicology, most notably by placing the museum-goers within a rich picture-experience of the relevance of music to human life. Additionally, the fact that music’s role in and significance to society is not being carried conventionally by words by the installation-work, but is being conveyed by the experience itself that it endows museum-goers with, stands like a cherry on the top of the cake: ultimately, in the installation-work The Visitors, it is the experience that is the text.

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Are we being driven by technology? A new lens for focusing on sound technologies

My visit to the exhibition Making Music Modern: Design for Ear and Eye at MoMA has awakened my longstanding urge to write a post on the discussion regarding the extent to which technology controls society. In fact, although I found that the exhibition had adopted an original approach regarding music, in that it addressed the role of technology and design in its development, it also treated the role of technology as self-evidently decisive, rather than revealing technology as a result of social and cultural forces and needs.

The Making Music Modern exhibition was held at MoMA from November 2014 to January 2016. Spanning a period from the early 20th century to the early 21st century, it focused on the ways in which music practices in the modern era – playing, composing, listening, distributing and visualizing – have been radically transformed and shaped through design innovations and technological development ever since the appearance of the phonograph. Interestingly, the exhibition was an initiative of MoMA’s department of Architecture and Design: its curator Juliet Kinchin considers music and sound to have always been a very important dimension of design, which, unfortunately, is often not written about or exhibited in museums.

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A possible guiding principle

Although Simon Reynolds has clearly expressed a far-reaching disbelief regarding the compatibility between popular music and museums in his book Retromania, Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, the exhibition of popular music themes is becoming an increasingly common project for museums across the Western world. In addition to a number of already existing museums[1], 2016 is expecting the opening of at least three new museums focusing on popular music themes, namely Danmarks RockMuseum in Denmark, the Grammy Museum in Mississippi, USA, and the National Blues Museum in Missouri, also in the USA. Such dynamism has given rise to significant discussions and publications focusing on the issues of the representativeness and exhibitability of popular music among those involved in both music studies and museum studies[2]. (more…)

The Horniman Museum’s new music gallery in London

Contemporary research in music studies has made it clear that knowledge about musical instruments is not simply about physically describing them. Accordingly, comprehensively understanding musical instruments not only involves classifying, measuring and investigating their acoustic properties, as organology has enduringly taught us, but also investigating the webs of their social and cultural meanings. Ultimately, musical instruments are ‘social and cultural beings’ and hence, intrinsically prone to letting us know about their lives (Dawe 2011: 196). Every shape and decoration embodies the values, politics and aesthetics of the communities that make use of them. (more…)