In June 2009 the GRAMMY Museum was celebrating its six-month anniversary. Having opened to critical acclaim in one of the worst recessions in decades, it was still struggling to find an audience and become the musical destination we all knew it truly was.
Just a few months earlier, the Museum had been fortunate enough to receive perhaps the rarest of 20th-century musical artifacts: eight elaborately embellished jackets and two bejeweled gloves, each undeniably belonging to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, who had been rehearsing at Staples Center for his upcoming 50-show run at London's 02 Arena. Jackson had noticed the nearby GRAMMY Museum and graciously decided to lend several pieces from his personal wardrobe for an exhibit titled Michael Jackson: HIStyle.
Thursday, June 25, 2009, started like any other day at the Museum, with our curatorial team coincidentally coming in early to remove and replace the Jackson exhibit. At some point in the early afternoon, as our registrar carefully began to collect the jackets for return to their owner, we got word that the pop star had been rushed to the emergency room. Then, that he was in critical condition. Within an hour, we learned of his passing.
As the world waited for answers to a million questions about Jackson's demise, the first news van pulled up to the Museum and telephones began to ring off their hooks. GRAMMY Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli had to make a game-time decision: What do we do with all these artifacts? Since we were the only museum with so many of Jackson's authentic belongings on hand, since our address sat squarely within the epicenter of Jackson activity, and since Jackson was such a huge part of contemporary American music history (which is the story we tell at the GRAMMY Museum) and had such an intimate connection with fans, we made the decision to put our exhibit back up for display.
Within three hours, we had quickly set the exhibit up on the third floor, creating a Jackson memorial of sorts. Instantly, word spread and four different local television stations arrived to report, announcing to Los Angeles that the Museum was the place fans should come to show their respects for the fallen King of Pop. By midnight, I had released the Museum's official statement and Bob had started working with The Recording Academy to bring over a treasure trove of long-unseen footage of Jackson at various GRAMMY Awards shows.
Within 24 hours, it seemed, every major local, national and international news outlet had come calling. The Los Angeles Times, People magazine and NPR all wanted to visit. The word was getting out and we didn't know what to expect. Visitors starting pouring in at a more rapid rate. CNN called. They wanted to go live from the Museum all day, concluding with a sign-off on "Larry King Live."
Within a week, Museum attendance had quadrupled. As droves of fans dressed in MJ T-shirts, wrapped in MJ blankets and holding MJ posters streamed into our lobby, staff watched in awe as attendance numbers skyrocketed.
International media converged on L.A. Live too, anxiously awaiting news of funeral plans. Journalists and TV crews from more than three dozen countries visited the Museum, usually arriving unannounced but quickly uploading photos and video of our memorial exhibit to their audiences around the world. Overnight, it seemed, we became an internationally recognized Museum.
Of course, these 12 overwhelming days were merely a preamble to the official Michael Jackson memorial service, held at Staples Center on July 7, 2009. Before the sun came up, "The Today Show" and "Dateline NBC" were set up in the Museum classroom, interviewing major figures associated with Jackson. Media risers stood three stories high in Nokia Plaza at L.A. Live and tens of thousands of fans flooded through police barricades past the Museum entrance. From our GRAMMY Sound Stage, Museum members watched the broadcast and sang along to every lyric. Afterward, as I walked Bob to the media positions to be interviewed, we literally rubbed elbows with Usher, Dionne Warwick and Stevie Wonder. Though just a bit-sized player in the Michael Jackson story, it was as if our Museum sat at the nexus of pop culture history.
In response to popular demand, last October we opened Michael Jackson: A Musical Legacy. Located on the Museum's fourth floor, it is a larger and more in-depth version of the Jackson exhibit, now equipped with handwritten lyrics, music videos and an interactive dance floor. Of course, it's one of the most popular exhibits in the Museum.
To this day, people arrive at the Museum asking about Michael Jackson. In essence, for some fans, we've become "The Michael Jackson Museum," a nickname we're proud to bear. We owe him a lot, a debt we sadly can't repay. Were it not for Michael Jackson, neither music nor the GRAMMY Museum would be what they are today.
(Katie Dunham is the Communications Manager at the GRAMMY Museum in downtown Los Angeles. A Museum staffer since May 2008, she oversees the Museum’s media relations, and online and social networking marketing efforts. For more information on the Museum, please visit www.grammymuseum.org.)