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].

Notes:

[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.

Image:

Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstein, 1975

References:

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.

 

 

If one had to be brief, one might say that Electro: from Kraftwerk to Daft Punkis an exhibition tracing 30 years of electronic music and experimentalism at the Philharmonie de Paris until the 11th of August 2019. A standard review would then follow, highlighting the uniqueness and singularity of some of the objects on display and drawing readers’ attention to the artists involved in the project and to the work of the sound designer and of the scenographer. None of this would be wrong, for sure. However, this exhibition, Electro, is, at least in museological terms, much more than this: in short, it is an event that has much to offer on how to effectively build experiential exhibitions, based on the landmark assumption of museum studies that an exhibition should facilitate dialogic rather than linear communication. In fact, several aspects are particularly worth mentioning as they closely align with a contemporary museum framework, as I would like to demonstrate:

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Michael Jackson: On the Wallis currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London until October 21st. In the words of Nicholas Cullinan, the National Portrait Gallery director and the curator, the exhibition seeks to convey the artists’ ‘[…] fascination, solidarity or sympathy for what Jackson represented, what he did and what was done to him. The exhibition examines Michael Jackson as both an artist recognised as such by other artists, and as a total work of art’ [1].

This being the case, museum visitors will not be presented with Michael Jackson’s personal objects, costumes and other memorabilia items, but rather with a wide range of artworks inspired by him or his image. It alsodiffers from the majority of the more recent exhibitions about musicians from popular music in that, although music is present in the exhibition, it is not the focus of the narrative nor is it exhibited as a museum object. Nonetheless, I find the exhibition remarkably fulfils a major aim in museum practice today: that of addressing the diversity of ways in which a certain matter resonates with the exhibition’s visitors – in the case of Michael Jackson’s exhibition, it widely addresses the ways in which audiences use Jackson’s music and personal image as a self-referential construct in which they build their own identities.

In more detail, it comprises the exhibition of 83 works of art, each accompanied by a text explaining in general terms what moved and compelled the artist to produce a work about Jackson and about what led them to approach him in a certain manner. There is a multitude of perspectives and one can easily find an approach resembling one’s own: portraits of the singer as reflected through his admirers or works reflecting the biographical dimension of pop and the way it becomes the soundtrack to a life, to name only a couple. As it is an exhibition that shows what artists made of Michael Jackson and, in some sense, what audiences made of him – as Jackson shifted into constantly new entities, there are plenty of perspectives – it forms a portrayal of the condition of fandom itself, a portrayal of Michael Jackson as a cultural icon and so of Michael Jackson as part of collective memory.

I have read some reviews that maintain that the show is confusing in that it jostles together visual traditions as different as pop, conceptual, post-pop, post-conceptual and plain commercial, but I find this critique inappropriate in the light of the purposes of the exhibition. In fact,the textual discourse and the organisation of the rooms follow the rationale of identities that Jackson presents,by means of foregrounding the particular perspectives artists took on him. Furthermore, as one reads each work’s panel text, there is no mention of artistic techniques. From all these perspectives, Jackson as a surrogate for blackness is perhaps the most significant. In fact, ‘[…] the Jackson family was the first wholesome black American family who entered homes all over the US […] during a time when most black [African-American] people were portrayed as criminals, [or] drug addicts’ [2]. In line with this, in the exhibition, images of black people speak to people who have always felt excluded, to popular audiences and to culture at large.

A must see.

[1] Cullinan, Nicholas. 2018. ‘The Last Modernist’. In Michael Jackson On the Wall, London: National Portrait Gallery, page 16.

[2] Cullinan, Nicholas. 2018. ‘The Last Modernist’. In Michael Jackson On the Wall, London: National Portrait Gallery, page 18.

 

Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound is the very first sound-focused exhibition staged by the British Library and it brings to public view material from the tremendous resource which is the British Library Sound Archive. The exhibition tells the story of sound recording since the invention of the phonograph in 1877, reflects the impact of radio in the 20th century, and the importance of sound in recording our lives and cultural heritage. It is part of a major event the British Library is conducting, Season of Sound, celebrating all aspects of the listening experience, which comprises a programme of accompanying events such as lectures, tours and workshops, all aiming at connecting people with their audio heritage.

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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.

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ABBA THE MUSEUM is part of a major project called Pop House, set up with the aim of celebrating live music, which comprises three facilities, a hotel, a restaurant and the Abba museum. After a period of resistance, Abba’s members ended up agreeing with the idea of the museum, but on the condition that it would proceed to focus on Abba not in isolation but rather positioned within the larger context of Swedish music. As such, the museum comprises not only a gallery for the permanent exhibition on Abba, but also two rooms for temporary exhibitions on topics from the broader Swedish popular musical scene.

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