Museums as sacred space?

At the outset I should make a confession: my gut feeling is that pop and the museum just don’t go together. Actually, I’m not sure music of any kind really works in a museum, a place of hush and decorum. Museums are primarily visual, oriented around display, designed for the contemplative gaze. The crucial element of sound has either to be absent or suppressed. Unlike paintings or sculptures, you can’t have sonic exhibits side by side; they interfere with each other. So music museums contain the ancillary stuff (instruments and stage costumes, posters and packaging) but not the main thing itself. Ephemera, not what’s essential.

– Simon Reynolds, Retromania, p.3

This is the beginning of a chapter in the book that I’m currently reading. Throughout the rest of the chapter, Reynolds dissects several music museums and specific exhibits therein,  the British Music Experience, the Rock’n’Roll Public Library, the Rock and Roll hall of Fame and Museum Annex in New York, and the Experience Music Project in Seattle among them. The chapter itself leads from these descriptions into an analysis on what Reynolds describes as “archive fever,” which is centered on whether Rock and Roll and/or Punk music is old enough to really be archived. Reynolds seems to question whether the “artifacts” that are on display belong instead in personal collections at this juncture in time, especially when these artifacts can be viewed as somewhat idolatrous, including the clothes that John Lennon was shot in, or Kurt Cobain’s one sweater. The writer seems to struggle with the idea that clothes that were worn just twenty or fifty years ago are now behind a glass panel as part of an exhibit of the past, and whether this is appropriate, necessary, or educational in any way.

It is Reynolds’ strong statement that begins this chapter that is off-putting for me and frames the chapter in a way that suggests that it is maybe not the non-necessity of including these stories of music in history, but the inadequacy of the museum template to facilitate that educational and preservation process that makes it questionable.

I agree that the typical museum experience doesn’t facilitate an educational music experience- but let’s think for a minute – how often does the typical museum experience facilitate the topic at hand? Staring at a row of paintings, as Reynolds refers to, is possible because, I suppose, the actual act of looking at a painting is silent. But what are you going to learn about a painting from staring at it? Especially if- as many audience members to a music museum would be- you have limited knowledge of art in general, relating mostly to what you experience on a daily basis? Special exhibits can often accomplish this goal a bit more easily- I visited the small but well designed and curated Art Deco exhibit at the Cincinnati Art Museum last month. Without anyone guiding me through the exhibit, without a printed pamphlet in hand, I was able to follow the narrative and ethos of the exhibit. But as a whole, museums, even topical ones such as “contemporary art” or “craft,” can be difficult to navigate without some sort of ancillary information, and much more is gained from the experience with a guide, whether it be a live one or an audio tour.

The museums that Reynolds describes- particularly the British Music Experience and the Experience Music Project (the latter of which I have visited), mostly stray away from the traditional museum template. Each has interactive and media supported exhibits that rely on the artifacts such as guitars and photos as more of an environmental place-setting instead of the experience itself. In all honestly, I don’t find that the museum experiences that Reynolds describes support his theory that music has no place in the museum. This is evident at the Experience Music Project- in my favorite room there, which features audio and video (and both) from musicians of many time periods and places telling the story of their musical heyday. The British Music Experience seems to have a similarly interactive option where visitors can use a digital device to scroll through different topics in a time period and hear and/or see about them.

So if these museums that he writes about are actually curating interactive exhibitions that extend the box of the museum experience, is it just Reynolds’ perception of museums that holds him back from thinking that they are an appropriate place for music history education?


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