Much Ado About Music Museums

As the GRAMMY Museum turns 5, music museums proliferate
  • Photo: Courtesy of the GRAMMY Museum
    The GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles
  • Photo: George Rose/Getty Images
    The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio
  • Photo: Mark Peterman/WireImage.com
    Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn.
  • Photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images
    The Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville, Tenn.
  • Photo: Mike Kane/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    The Experience Music Project in Seattle
  • Plans for the interior of the GRAMMY Museum Mississippi
  • Photo: Lynne Margolis
    The Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum
  • Photo: Lynne Margolis
    Joe Wilson at the Blue Ridge Music Center in Galax, Va.
  • Photo: Lynne Margolis
    Inside the the Carter Family Fold and Memorial Music Center
  • Photo: Charles Eshelman/Getty Images
    Rosanne Cash
  • Photo: Lynne Margolis
    The Roots of American Music exhibit
  • Photo: Mike Windle/WireImage.com
    GRAMMY Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli
  • Photo: Ronnie Booze Photography
    A view of the And The GRAMMY Goes To Memphis exhibit at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music
December 02, 2013 -- 2:44 pm PST
By Lynne Margolis / GRAMMY.com

(Editor's Note: On Dec. 6 the GRAMMY Museum will celebrate its five-year anniversary by offering free admission to the Museum all day. For more information on the GRAMMY Museum and its programs, visit www.grammymuseum.orgfollow the Museum on Twitter @TheGRAMMYMuseum and "like" the GRAMMY Museum on Facebook.)

If GRAMMY Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli has his way, America will one day have as many music museums as art museums — maybe more. And as the GRAMMY Museum in downtown Los Angeles celebrates its fifth anniversary on Dec. 6, Santelli is working toward making that dream a reality. On June 11 ground was broken for GRAMMY Museum Mississippi, the first full-fledged satellite GRAMMY Museum, across from Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss. The 20,000-plus-square-foot Museum is expected to open in summer 2015.

"When that Museum opens it will be the most technologically rich music museum on the planet," Santelli says.

The Mississippi version will examine blues, country, gospel, rock, hip-hop, and every other genre with a foothold in the region that calls itself — justifiably, according to Santelli — "The Birthplace of American Music." Not to be outdone, Memphis, Tenn., touts itself as both the "Home of the Blues" and "Birthplace of Rock 'n' Roll," while Eastern Tennessee claims to be the "Cradle of Country Music" and Nashville is known as "Music City."

And these cities are not just saying it, they're proving it.

In celebration of its 40th anniversary, on Oct. 26 The Recording Academy Memphis Chapter and the Stax Museum launched And The GRAMMY Goes To Memphis, a new exhibit on display through October 2014. The exhibit features 19 gramophone statuettes from various local GRAMMY winners dating back to 1966 and the first GRAMMY won by a Memphis-based act, gospel greats the Blackwood Brothers.

As more regions turn to tourism for economic development and custodians of musical legacies seek to preserve, share and capitalize on their heritage, music museums, archives, halls of fame, music trails, and other similar attractions are proliferating around the country.

The forthcoming GRAMMY Museum Mississippi site will be housed only 45 minutes away from Clarksdale, home of the Delta Blues Museum and the crossroads where, as legend has it, blues pioneer Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his playing prowess. Even closer is the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola.

Memphis, two hours north of Cleveland, Miss., on Route 61 ("the blues highway"), contains some of the nation's most popular musical attractions, including Sun Studio, where Elvis Presley cut his first tracks; Presley's beloved Graceland mansion; the Stax Museum of American Soul Music; and the Smithsonian-affiliated Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum on Beale Street, itself a famed attraction. Tourists seeking a full understanding of their cultural impact are advised to first visit the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel (where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated). Memphis music historian Robert Gordon, author of Respect Yourself: Stax Records & The Soul Explosion, says they're all vital.

"Each one tells different parts of the story," he says. "I don't feel like they overlap; their approaches are different."

The Sun Studio tour, for example, occurs in a nondescript, tile-floored room. Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and the still-killer Jerry Lee Lewis — called the Million Dollar Quartet — feel almost as if they're standing in that room once skilled narrators bring their stories to life with anecdotes and audio clips.

"The ones that work best are the ones that tell stories," Gordon says.

Perspective is also important.

"In the Stax Museum, for example, there's a narrative thread about racism in Memphis," he adds. "In the B.B. King Museum, there's a story about social changes in the Delta, the way farms changed and the way society changed. The people who do it best are the ones who understand that small stories can be a microcosm for a national story, if it's in the right context. … A good museum gives you a new way to look at its subject."

The Blue Ridge Music Center in Galax, Va., achieves that with its Roots of American Music exhibit, the brainchild of National Heritage Fellow Joe Wilson, chairman of the National Council for the Traditional Arts.

Telling "the story of American music in the mountains," the exhibit illuminates how the African banjo and European fiddle came to exemplify Americana. The center is situated on Virginia's Crooked Road Music Trail, which also includes the Carter Family Fold and Memorial Music Center in Hiltons, where the first family of country music lived and played. Saturday nights in the large wooden barn, grandparents pass down Appalachian flat-foot or clog-dancing steps to gangly tweens, cleats clicking to old-time rhythms delivered by resolutely non-electrified players. The Fold was also the last place Cash, husband of June Carter, played before his death. 

As a tribute to the late Man in Black, on May 30 the Johnny Cash Museum, created by his friend Bill Miller, opened its doors in Nashville. Also in Music City, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum recently completed renovations that doubled its size to 250,000 square feet, and this past summer the first-ever physical Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame gallery debuted at the newly constructed Music City Center. Cash's daughter, GRAMMY winner Rosanne Cash, calls the Johnny Cash Museum "meticulously curated."

"The family items included are appropriate to my dad's legacy," she adds. "There is nothing in there that made me feel uncomfortable, or I felt was gratuitous. The respect the museum has for my dad is palpable."

Though compact, the museum offers a fascinating, multifaceted look at the country icon's life.

Bluegrass banjo great Earl Scruggs will receive similar treatment with the Jan. 11, 2014, opening of the Earl Scruggs Center: Music & Stories From The American South in the former Shelby County, N.C., courthouse, the latest link in the state's Blue Ridge Music Trails.

Wayne Martin, executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council, says the trails provide "multiple entry points into the more grassroots, or authentic, culture of the region." Though not all North Carolina music originated in the mountains, Martin says, "It's the term that captures the spirit of that community-based string-band music."

The Stax Museum, Detroit's Motown Museum, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, and Seattle's Experience Music Project might all be considered what Santelli calls "pilgrimage sites" — memorabilia-filled destinations fans feel compelled to visit at least once in their lives.

Smaller, less theme-specific landmarks such as the GRAMMY Museum, he says, need to focus as much on educational and entertainment programming as they do exhibits. In addition to more than two dozen exhibits exploring everything from rock, hip-hop and country to classical, Latin, R&B, and jazz, the Museum's education staff uses music as a gateway to learning by providing hands-on experiences that allow students to deepen their understanding of music, culture and history.

"With music education leaving schools, the music museum now has added responsibility," Santelli notes. "Why not have a music museum in every American city? There's plenty of music to celebrate and explore."

(Austin, Texas-based writer/editor Lynne Margolis contributes regularly to print, broadcast and online media including American Songwriter and Lone Star Music magazines. Outlets also have included the Christian Science MonitorPaste, Rollingstone.com, and NPR. A contributing editor to the encyclopedia, The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen From A To E To Z, Margolis also writes bios for new and established artists.)

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