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.
Rockheim is the Norwegian national museum for popular music, which alone is already very singular: despite the growing trend towards celebrating and exhibiting popular music in museums, few are the countries which are given a national museum specifically to take care of and address the country’s popular music. The idea for the museum emerged during a conference in 1998 focusing on the discussion of musical and sound archives, during which the delegates recognised the need to preserve Norwegian popular music as heritage. There then followed a long development process until the museum’s opening in Trondheim in 2010.
The V&A is currently staging Their Mortal Remains, a remarkable exhibition that pays tribute to the band Pink Floyd. The narrative is typically historical, although it does provide here and there a zoom in on some thematic areas; while it offers a retrospective of the band’s 50 years, it then focuses in on their 14 albums, chronologically, one at a time. In short, in terms of displays, this extensive retrospective boasts some overwhelming installations featuring some album sleeves, and over 350 artefacts, some of which have never been seen before, including hand-written lyrics, musical instruments, letters, original artwork and stage props, spanning well over half a century. (more…)
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.
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.