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Rock and Roll road trip

by Jaq Nigg | Jul 12, 2012

By Martha Hill, vice president for public programs & visitor experience

A few weeks ago, several museum staffers made a trip to prepare for our 2013 exhibit featuring guitars and the American West. We did not go to Santa Fe, not LA, not Dallas or Denver. We went to Cleveland. In Ohio. Guitars and the West and we go East. On the road early morning: destination the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. We planned to see the galleries and a school program, hoped to see the vault and looked forward to conversations with curators about potential loans. Little did we know what impact this brief trip would have on us. And, little did we imagine the personal connections we would each have with what we were about to see. As museum professionals we have discussions about what we think our visitors know about our subject matter; what knowledge they bring with them; and how that will affect their experience when they visit. Basically, what is going to grab their attention and spark their imagination? Switching roles, on this trip we were the visitors.

 When we arrived at the “Rock Hall,” our collective and individual reactions to the exhibitions were definitely related to our own experiences with music and musicians. Our reactions, I think in part were related to our ages—one in her 20s; one in her 30s; one in her 50s and the last, in his 60s—we were each captivated and mesmerized by objects for which we had personal connections.

James, our VP and chief curatorial officer who previously worked at the Autry National Center in LA, was totally taken in by Eldon Shamblin’s 1954 Fender Stratocaster electric guitar. He hadn’t expected to see it. Mr. Shamblin was a member of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys and is considered one of the best rhythm guitar players of all time. Years ago, this guitar was in a show at the Autry. James remembered Mr. Shamblin well and marveled at the fact that in his later years he had to make his living delivering milk.

 

What about the youngsters in our group who grew up with music videos and MTV? We rounded a corner in the exhibit and started up a ramp featuring Michael Jackson where Johanna, our assistant curator of Western art, nearly melted onto the floor when she saw the werewolf mask from his Thriller video. This was absolutely the best reaction I’ve ever witnessed to an object. Her eyes were wide open; she couldn’t talk and was gasping with her hands over her mouth. Wow! She was instantly transported back to watching the Thriller video as a kid. Nearby, Kara, our director of visitor experience, was mesmerized by Michael Jackson’s glove from the 1992 Billie Jean video.

As for me, I was excited to get within inches of Billy Joel’s spiral bound notebook in which he had written the lyrics to the songs for his 52nd Street album. Billy Joel’s music instantly brings back my high school and college days. Other highlights included Beatles items, specifically, John Lennon’s jacket pictured on the 1967 cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. My older brother had that album and I remember seeing it next to the stereo whenever he was home from college.

So what was our takeaway from this visit – besides the CDs, t-shirts, postcards and guitar-shaped bottle openers we bought in the museum’s store? It was a reminder and validation of our views that experiences in museums are personal while at the same time social. We each had our own favorites which were strongly tied to our memories and experiences, but we also talked and talked and talked about the groups and performers we had seen and how amazing it was to see the instruments, clothing, hand-written lyrics and a multitude of other objects. Our experience was visual, but also auditory—what is the story of Rock and Roll without sound?

Inspired and excited about prospects for our guitar exhibit, we came away with some great ideas and contacts (thank you Jason, Jun, Jim, Patrick, Greg and Rob). According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, they opened in Cleveland in 1995 with the mission to “...educate visitors, fans and scholars from around the world about the history and continuing significance of rock and roll music.” It does that. It also made each of us aware of the impact music makes on each of us as individuals.

We have lots of guitar-related designing to do, loans to procure and public programs to plan before next March; but, in the meantime, we hope you’ll share in the comments what music-related object would make you swoon or transport you to another place and time.

 

 

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