The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Museums about music are strange. Generally when I think about museums, what comes immediately to mind is things - an object, the stuff associated with the object, discussion of the object, a context of the object, but mainly the object. And that object is generally some kind of physical being or something that can be represented and crystallized into a physical being. Or, with art museums, a place to put things in view where you can look at them at your leisure. However, the center point of all these different views of the museum is the thing itself. Which is what makes a museum devoted to music fundamentally flawed. Music is inherently ephemeral. Even with recordings, which store the music in a reproducible, physical form, the music still exists in time. You can’t just look at a CD and say, “oh yeah, I like that song;” you can look at a CD, see the title of a song, and say “oh yeah, I like that song” but the title is only a reference to the song, not the song itself. This wouldn’t be a problem if music museums did nothing but play music and provided a place for people to go to listen to that music, in its entirety, at their own leisurely pace. Then it would be an equivalent of an art museum. Or, more likely, an iTunes playlist.
However, museums of music are generally about everything but the music. Instead they are all about the culture surrounding the music, collecting the ephemera that goes along with the process of music making. In the case of a museum for a composer, they’ll have his desk or her piano or manuscripts of the original sheet music (whether or not sheet music counts as the
music is a discussion for another day). For a rock museum (like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the Experience Music Project in Seattle, both of which I’ve visited in the past 6 months), they collect guitars, amps, drumheads, clothes, lyric books, photos, albums, and all the things that rock stars (since they both focus almost exclusively on artists who have sold at least a million records) come in contact with in their lives. But instead of giving complete fully contexualized musical examples, these places play on the loudspeakers 5-10 second clips, generally from the chorus, of songs that people know simply by existing within American culture. And not only are there only clips, but these clips are constantly fighting with clips from other sections of the museum for control over the aural space of the room. Now, I would have no complaint about this if they were, say, playing all the b-sides of the Stones hit singles, or cuts from deep within The Wall
or perhaps something deeper still. But, alas, all we get are the choruses of all the classic rock mainstays played in medley format while looking at record covers, drumsticks, and revealing outfits on mannequins (though I will say that I want most of the Al Green outfits they had at the Hall of Fame).
Another point of contention for me is the nearly strict focus on the mega-hits without even a mention of the lesser knowns. At art museums you’ll see an ultra-famous painting put next to something that you’ve never heard of; not so at rock museums. The only strange juxtaposition to be found at the R&R Hall of Fame is in the section where they talk about regional scenes and the put LA folk/rock immediately next to New York and London punk. And the only other mentions of the underground at both museums are in the local sections; the Hall of Fame has 2 little display cases on Pere Ubu, Devo, and co (I will admit to wanting to break into the case and steal the 30 Seconds Over Tokyo
7” as well as most of the Devo memorabilia, though). The EMP is a little more thorough, documenting most of the Seattle scene starting from the early 80s on including video interviews and full song samples of bands like Sleater-Kinney.
I went into both museums with a certain amount of trepidation, and neither failed to disappoint me. The EMP at least had better interactive features, a cool building, and a sci-fi hall of fame which I unfortunately didn’t have time to go to, so I left at least partially entertained. The Hall of Fame, however, felt like a walk-in VH1 special, long on hollow facts and short on substance.