Meditations on Popular Music Exhibitions

In July I explored the Museum of the City of New York’s exhibition New York, New Music: 1980-1986. In route to the museum, I wondered whether its exhibition would be exceptional and offer something in content or layout that would depart from similar popular music exhibitions I had seen previously. The day of my visit I desired to experience something that would convince me that popular music exhibitions in 2021 were developing for the better and making an impact.

While analyzing the exhibition I reflected on the Advanced Certificate paper I completed for the NYU Museum Studies Department in 2019, which I titled “Listening experiences of American popular music exhibitions.” In that paper I studied Musical Crossroads at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and the rooms of the Louis Armstrong House Museum (LAHM) to demonstrate that popular music exhibitions featuring BIPOC musicians can help transform museums into powerful alternative listening spaces of the twenty-first century.[1]

Since the time I authored my paper, the museum world has experienced great challenges. More than ever, I am convinced that if museums are to be sites of transformation, then every aspect of them, including their small and large-scale exhibitions, must facilitate their metamorphosis. Although art exhibitions outnumber popular music exhibitions every year, the latter kind of exhibitions are mighty forces, not to be underestimated.

In what follows, I offer my present mediations on popular music exhibitions. At times, I focus specifically on New York, New Music, and other times I revisit Musical Crossroads at the NMAAHC since I consider it a good contrast to the Museum of the City of New York’s exhibition. Finally, I briefly address several topics or issues of popular music exhibitions before spotlighting their potency.

KEY COMPONENTS OF POPULAR MUSIC EXHIBITIONS

During the past four years I have walked through and studied different popular music exhibitions in New York, Washington D.C., Liverpool, and London. My experiences as a researcher and visitor of various American and British popular music exhibitions have influenced my expectations and understanding of them. Below I include a list of key components that comprise such exhibitions.

  • Display or use of analog, digital, or interactive visual and/or audio technologies
  • Use of recorded or live sounds that provide visitors with diverse listening experiences
  • Display of fashion clothing items
  • Display of musical instruments, sheet music, concert posters, or other relevant music ephemera
  • Presence of a chronological or genre narrative (may not apply to exhibitions that focus on a single performer)

NEW YORK, NEW MUSIC: 1980-1986 (2021)

New York, New Music, conceived by Sean Corcoran, a curator of Prints and Photographs at the Museum of the City of New York, is a perfect archetype of a popular music exhibition or, at least, one with the elements outlined above. After exiting the museum’s elevator on the third floor, I noticed the exhibition title sign with neon-lettering, and I could hear music coming from the end of the hallway. While moving through the exhibition I was transported to a time before I was born with recorded music, videos, music ephemera, fashion clothing items, and wall text. I heard some of my favorite songs of Blondie, lounged on a couch in front of a retro television playing MTV, and watched Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s iconic music video for their song “The Message” on a projector screen.

The exhibition is comprised of three spaces. In the first space, which is a long entry hallway, there is wall text about New York in the 1980s and lots of black and white and colored photographs of relevant musicians. The second space is a small area with a mustard-colored couch, a floor television playing MTV, more photographs of musicians, and a mounted television with over-ear headphones. The third space is a large room filled with additional photographs, cased clothing and electric guitars, more mounted televisions with over-ear headphones, and two projector screens playing different music videos.

All the above photos of New York, New Music were taken by the author on July 25, 2021

Something that distinguishes New York, New Music from other popular music exhibitions I have visited is that it prioritizes and equalizes recorded sound and moving images in all its spaces. Throughout the exhibition visitors can listen to and view music videos played on mounted televisions or projector screens. Featuring music videos rather than just recorded audio or moving images without sound can have positive outcomes. For New York, New Music, the videos provide a rich sensory experience, are engaging, and satisfy the needs of those who rely on sonic or visual cues for information gathering.

MUSICAL CROSSROADS (2016)

Like New York, New Music, Musical Crossroads has the components I listed above. The webpage of the NMAAHC describes the exhibition as “the thread that pulls the themes of the Museum’s various galleries together in a language that is accessible to all.”[2] This language is music. Dwandalyn Reece, curator of Music and Performing Arts at the NMAAHC, is responsible for bringing the exhibition to fruition. In a space of 6,200 square feet, she takes visitors through a genre narrative and highlights African American musicians that have shaped American music. In total, the exhibition features and provides information on twelve different music genres. Below I include the NMAAHC’s map of the exhibition, which I have edited to provide more detail about the layout. My additions are in color.

In November 2019 I explored the exhibition, located in the Culture Galleries on the NMAAHC’s fourth floor. After walking into the main space, I noticed a bright red convertible, the 1973 cherry red Cadillac Eldorado of rock and roller Chuck Berry (1926-2017). Berry’s car is one of two large objects featured in the exhibition and a favorite for visitors, many of whom lingered at the entrance to take a selfie with it. After moving away from the Cadillac, I was immersed in a unique soundscape, featuring recorded music spanning various time periods.

There is a stand-out portion of the exhibition known as the “Neighborhood Record Store” that entices visitors to listen actively and collectively to recorded sound played in sequence. Inside the Neighborhood Record Store, visitors can access a rectangular touch table with a format like Spotify. They can digitally flip through albums, add their favorite songs to a shared playlist, and play these songs, which sound in the store for other visitors. While listening to the table’s shared playlist, visitors may stare at music ephemera on the walls, the wooden cubbies that house fake LPs, or look at the touch table. When I walked through the Neighborhood Record Store, I discovered that most visitors were eager to hear their favorite music and thus flocked to the touch table, using it to achieve their audio desires. Unlike in the rooms of New York, New Music, there is an object and sense hierarchy in this exhibition space with the touch table and sound at the top and other objects and senses below them. Popular music exhibitions that strategically utilize curated sound, such as Musical Crossroads, offer different experiences than those that do not or those that equalize sound and visuals, such as New York, New Music.

All the above photos of Musical Crossroads were taken by the author on November 4. 2019

SOUND AND LISTENING IN MUSEUMS

Sound was not always welcome in museums. Scholar Samuel Alberti stresses that there was a great interest in regulating the sensory and emotive impact of exhibitions during the nineteenth century, especially those featuring natural collections. He writes that silence was the ideal, even if it was not always achievable.[3] Although many twenty-first century museums embrace noise, there still exists the idea that museums should be relatively silent public spaces. Popular music exhibitions have helped normalize and popularize sound in museums.

In her 2016 book academic Nina Sun Eidsheim states the following about the term “listening:” “Because listening is never neutral, but rather always actively produces meaning, it is a political act….”[4] While many scholars recognize the importance of accepting deeper and more complex understandings of the term “listening,” most professionals outside of academia do not. Possessing the knowledge that listening and sound are profound terms is the first step to making popular music exhibitions successful.

SOUND BLEED IN POPULAR MUSIC EXHIBITIONS: CACOPHONY OR EUPHONY?

Some curators of popular music exhibitions are concerned with “sound bleed” or the leakage and overlap of sounds from multiple sources. To help reduce and control sound bleed, many curators of popular music exhibitions include sound booths, directional speakers, or headphones in their exhibitions.[5] Both New York, New Music and Musical Crossroads feature sound bleed. Each exhibition has at least one space where various sounds from different audio or audio-visual technologies clash. In New York, New Music sound bleed is present in every space. I am not certain whether the decision to include sound bleed in this exhibition was a conscious choice. Some curators of popular music exhibitions choose to feature sound bleed to avoid paying for expensive acoustic treatments.

Video of New York, New Music taken by author on July 25, 2021

Other curators use sound bleed intentionally. Dwandalyn Reece, curator of Musical Crossroads, once described the exhibition’s soundscape as “a polyphonic texture of individual utterances that play off one another in a collective whole.”[6] Her words indicate that sound bleed or “polyphonic texture” is not always undesirable; rather it can be a primary goal. The presence of sound bleed in her exhibition allows many visitors to experience a familiar soundscape. Sound bleed is a hallmark of the modern age. Consciously or unconsciously recognizing a familiar and relevant soundscape can help visitors feel comfortable and welcome.

Soundscape of Musical Crossroads, audio captured by author on November 4, 2019

Note to readers: This second part of this blog post was published on September 24, 2021 — https://louisarmstrongfellowsblog.wordpress.com/2021/09/24/meditations-on-popular-music-exhibitions-continued/. The two blog posts should be read as one piece, not two stand-alone pieces. The author retains all ownership rights of the prose. The author also retains the right to use any or all the prose in future works.


[1] The term “BIPOC” is an acronym, which stands for Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

[2] “Musical Crossroads,” National Museum of African American History and Culture,” accessed July 31, 2021, https://nmaahc.si.edu/musical-crossroads.   

[3] Samuel J.M.M. Alberti, “The Museum Affect: Visiting Collections of Anatomy and Natural History,” in Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sties and Experiences, ed. Aileen Fyfe and Bernard Lightman (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007), 382.  

[4] Nina Sun Eidsheim, The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).

[5] Sarah Baker, Lauren Istvandity and Raphaël Nowak, “The sound of music heritage: curating popular music museums and exhibitions,” International Journal of Heritage Studies, vol. 22, no.2 (2016), 74-75.

[6] “SEM2016-9) Public Policy Session: Music Matters: The Public Sphere,” Indiana University, accessed July 31, 2021, https://iu.mediaspace.kaltura.com/media/SEM2016-Session+9A/1_ug9un3bp.

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