Sep 222012

Rock museums. Just the idea of them is questionable. I mean, I’m resigned to rock’s total acceptance by mainstream culture and acknowledge the plus sides of that as well as the downsides. But even if there is a significant chunk of rock’s history that is now well and truly in the distant past (beyond the memories of most people alive today), rock museums seem to me, just, un-rock. I even approved when the Sex Pistols said fuckyouverymuch to the RNR HOF’s induction ceremony.

That didn’t stop me this year from going on a pilgrimage to Memphis, the Mississippi Delta, and New Orleans, where I paid entrance fees to Halls of Culture to see (and hear) what until recently would have been considered mass culture ephemera by the custodians of such places. Really, I just wanted to go to 706 Union Avenue. That alone would have had meaning for me as a historical place, and it was indeed the highlight of my trip.

I will blurb below about the places I went (with Mrs. Kid), but I’m more interested in your feelings, ideas, and experiences about Rock Museums.

Sun Studios (Memphis, TN) – It is a goldmine for someone, but I didn’t mind the commercial aspect at all. They had exhibits in the old boarding house upstairs showing Phillips’ original recording gear and a presentation including loudly played prime Sun cuts. They have Marion Kiesker’s office as it was, and paid her huge props as an unsung figure in the creation of rock, but the drab studio itself was the best bit. It looks like it has never been changed since it opened. The ugly soundproofing tiles on the wall are the same ones seen in the iconic Million Dollar Quartet photo. They have the original vocal mike set up where Elvis, Johnny, and Wolf stood, the original piano Jerry Lee played. If I were any younger, I would have really felt something, but even in my jaded old age I felt some kind of tremor as they dimmed the lights and played “That’s All Right.”

Graceland (Memphis, TN) – We went because why not? Another highlight. The house and grounds were tremendously more modest than I expected. The décor did not offend me at all – it just reminded me of the ’70s. The many museum exhibits across the road were hit and miss. I’m not a car nerd, but I loved seeing Elvis’s impressive collection, and I also enjoyed boarding the Lisa Marie Convair 880 jet parked outside. Because I allowed for the excessive commercialization upfront, I was able to screen out the vulgarity of the sheer number of gift shops (I bought exactly one postcard) and simply enjoy soaking up the level of Elvisness that I was comfortable with.

Memphis Rock and Soul Museum (Memphis, TN) – Slate me for going here instead of the Stax Museum, but I am much more of a rockabilly and blues hound than a soul brother. I hoped to find some more juice on the hillbilly and R&B aspects of the Memphis scene beyond just the Sun stable, and found a little bit. The museum was actually quite well done and probably a good overview of all the Memphis musics, but after Sun, Graceland, and three and half hours at the best museum in town (the National Civil Rights Museum), I was all exhibited out and ready to conclude that Rock Museums are indeed a waste of time. How many old stage suits, harmonicas and sheet music can you look at?

Delta Blues Museum (Clarksdale, MS) – This modest little exhibit was a let-down in terms of content. There is a rival museum in town that may be better, according to some reviews. I did appreciate very much the way they salvaged and have exhibited the walls of a plantation shack that Muddy Waters lived in nearby when he was a child. There was some interesting stuff on Charley Patton and a plaque from Led Zeppelin marking their financial support of the museum, but I was pretty much done after about 25 minutes. Heading into the gift shop at the end I was shocked to see the name of the headliner on a poster advertising an annual festival that was to begin the next day in sleepy little broken-down Clarksdale: Robert Plant. As we left and saw them setting up banquet tables and a small stage on the lawn outside, I kicked myself for not scheduling our stop one day later.

Preservation Hall (New Orleans, LA ) – This was another highlight, despite the fact that I would rarely sit down and listen to trad jazz on my own. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it when I hear it, and to hear it played in this place where it has been quite literally preserved every night for the last 50 years was my idea of a music museum. There is no set Preservation Hall Jazz Band – there is a roster of players and bands that serve in that capacity each night and each week. All play the traditional shit in the traditional way in the traditional place, and they rock the motherfucking house. I don’t care if everyone in the room was a tourist, I loved the opportunity to hear music history played live instead of seeing it in a glass case on the wall.  I also enjoyed it immensely when some dumbass requested “Take Five” and the band all snorted derisively, muttering “’Take Five’ doesn’t swing.” Also, for some reason I assumed Preservation Hall was some formal concert hall of impressive size, but I was thrilled to see that it was a little hole in the wall as shitty as any punk rock club.

Unfortunately, my conclusion that musical museums might be better when they are based on live performances instead of two-dimensional displays could not work for rock. I never want to see a Preservation Hall Rock Band playing some arbitrary collection of rock “standards”. Oh my God, I might get sick just thinking about it.

What do you think about Rock Museums?


  14 Responses to “Rock Museums?”

  1. 2000 Man

    I wen to Sun and Graceland a few months ago. Graceland was everything I thought it would be. It was crass, it was weird, the tourists were a trip and it was a blast. I got a terrible chocolate malt there, and that was the only thing that disappointed me.

    Sun was great. Standing on the X where Elvis sang was really something. That was a really great tour and I was surprised to hear that pretty much after Sam sold Elvis’ contract until U2 recorded there, the place just sat, so it was easy to leave it as it always was. Our tour guide was really fun, and she really knew a lot. My wife was worried that I’d buy some of the records on the walls, becaue they weren’t cheap!

    People can say what they want about the Rock Hall. I think it’s a terrific museum, mainly becaue it’s treated like a quality art museum, and since they have to compete with the Cleveland Art Museum (if you’ve never seen it, you should go if you’re here – the amount of things I thought you’d only see in books there is amazing) they actually have serious curators and do all sorts of live music events, which are often free. The HOF itself is stupid, but the museum is neato. I’m not much of a Bruce fan, but I loved their Bruce exhibit. It was really something. The Stuart Sutcliffe art exhibit was possibly a once in a lifetime kind of thing.

    I like the good ones. Sun was something else, just to be there. I imagine Chess is the same way. We went to the Warhol museum in Pittsburgh and wanted our money back. That’s never happened to me at the Rock Hall, and I try to get there for the exhibits I think will be cool. And since the Cleveland Museum of Art is free, I’ve never not been blown away (though I’ve donated more than I planned on at the donation box – it depends on how long I get to stare at Monet, I suppose).

  2. ladymisskirroyale

    I grew up within a family who included museum attendance as the main reason for summer vacations, trips on the weekends, use of any extra hours, etc. Case in point, my brother and I went to go visit my sister this summer in Washington DC and for WEEKS afterwards, we were all treated to the continued parental refrains of “What, you didn’t go to ANY museums?!?”

    So going to a rock museum is sort of a “duh” for me. So are viewing points of literary significance (dragging relatives to Lyme Regis to see the site of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and track down John Fowles; dragging my sister to Exeter, NH to walk around grounds of The World According To Garp’s fictional Sterling Academy), movie or tv sets and locations (Petaluma, CA; Filoli Gardens, CA; much of Darien and Wilton, CT; sites in SF, etc.), museums about museums (The Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA)…the list can (and surely does) go on.

    Thank goodness Mr. Royale is a good sport and shares my affinities.

    So if I were in the South, I would most likely go to these places. I don’t have as much knowledge about Blues, Rockabilly, Soul, etc as many here at the Hall, but to experience locations that were important in the development of music is right up my alley.

    (PS – Mr. Royale and I are going to SFMOMA today to see a Cindy Sherman exhibit. Although she is a visual artist, there are always some interesting video art projects to be seen. Modern Art museums seem to be including or highlighting music to a greater and greater degree these days ((case in point: NY MOMA’s recent Kraftwerk concerts.)))

  3. Suburban kid

    There’s two points I wanted to make that I didn’t really get around to in the post.

    1. Rock Museums are a result of rock being fully welcomed into the mainstream culture as a “worthy” art form sometime in the 1990s (I think it happened in the UK 15 years earlier). To me, this assimilation has neutralized some of rock’s essence, and I regret it a little bit.

    2. Rock museum exhibits provide only a Readers Digest amount of information about their subjects. For someone who is really interested in learning, other sources such as records, books, the Internet, and other fans with knowledge are way more informative. Therefore, they may be more useful for people with only a passing interest in the basics rather than for those with specialist interests.

    The artifacts are cool. But damnit if they are not nearly as cool as the music.

  4. Suburban kid

    I’m referring to the museums, not famous rock locations like Sun or Graceland here. The famous location has something else going for it.

  5. Suburban kid

    All I’ve heard is that the RNR HOF is a great museum. Did you learn stuff there, or was it the wealth of artifacts?

  6. 2000 Man

    The Rock Hall is a really good museum. The artifacts are neat, though the clothes can get tedious, and most exhibits have some information you didn’t know about. There’s also some cool interactive listening stations where you can play some really obscure songs that were cited as influences. You can certainly do that on the internet these days, but the Rock Hall is good at staying focused and not sending you down YouTube rabbit holes. I think it’s a cool place, and I voted no when my chance came up. Had I known how much Id like it, I’d have voted yes.

  7. If you like Sun Studios for being to a great extent a fossil of the 1950s/1960s preserved in amber for modern day visitors, you’ll probably also approve of the Motown Museum on in Detroit, which has a similar vibe to it, largely because they didn’t do a great deal with it after Berry Gordy moved west in 1972; so as well as the usual exhibits, and the Hitsville studios, you can nose around the Gordy family apartment and stare at the breakfast cereal boxes in their kitchen. Endless fun and the tour guides really know their stuff, too, which is always a plus.

    The entire surrounding area of Detroit is kind of terrifyingly derelict, mind you.

  8. I haven’t been to a lot of these places mentioned here but I’m sure I would love them. I made a pilgrimage to Hibbing MN awhile back. It was a sleepy summer Saturday afternoon and the place seemed deserted. But I went to see Dylan’s boyhood home. I regret that I didn’t ring the bell and see if the current owners would let me in; I understand they are gracious when idiots like me do things like that. I did sneak into Hibbing High School into the auditorium where Dylan performed with his band. For me, it was an unexplainable thrill to be there. Same way I’d love to go to Clarksdale no matter how third rate the museum is. I’d love to go into the Pit at Motown studios. A friend when to 2130 South Michigan and said it was great; I know I’d love that.

    I love Rome. Every time I’m there I want to see the Pantheon. I’ll never tire of the Colosseum or St. Peter’s. And when I visited Sicily, it was thrilling to find the apartment in Palermo where my grandmother grew up; I didn’t go in but I took a picture outside the door. And we drove through the little fishing village where my grandfather grew up.

    Dylan’s hometown or some of the other places I’d like to visit (add Liverpool to the list above) are important to me in much the same way as to stand in a spot of greatness (like the Pantheon) or in a place that is so important to what makes me what I am. I couldn’t answer the question of who has had more of an impact on my life, John & Paul or Anna & Salvatore Germana, but I’d like to stand in the same spots they stood in.

  9. I took a wonderful trip to Memphis in 2003 or so. Sun Records and Graceland were great, but the Stax Museum was really special to me. Some of the best aspects of American art are on display there.

  10. I must agree with all of the Memphis posts. It is a great music museum destination. Surprisingly, I though this men’s clothier was as good as any of them:
    I have been trying to get to the RnR HoF in Cleveland as a side trip when we go to Pittsburgh every year to visit with a branch of my wife’s family. It’s only been 17 years, I’ll wear her down yet!

  11. ohmstead

    (WARNING: Lengthy Screed-like Diatribe Follows)

    As RTH’s self-appointed and wholly unauthorized and unofficial Architecture Critic this thread and the ensuing posts really struck a chord with me (…ahem).

    In actuality there’s probably little more that needs to be said on the topic of rock museums beyond Mr. Kid’s eloquent concluding remark: “The artifacts are cool. But damnit if they are not nearly as cool as the music.” Of course…that’s not going to stop ME.

    Experience Music Project (and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame)
    Seattle, WA

    By way of lengthy preamble I feel compelled to reveal my very strong aversion to “destination tourism”, which more often than not is the product of the hair-brained schemes of chambers of commerce and tourism boards as opposed to the organic outcome of an authentic, contemporary, and enduring experience or a genuine celebration of an art form. I would also likewise distinguish rock museums from real places and sites actually associated with music history, such as Graceland – that to a different generation and taste, is no less a legitimate house museum than Mount Vernon (adjusting for differences in cultural significance, of course).

    No…what I object to are the contrived efforts, motivated by twin evils of ham-fisted economic development efforts and “heritage tourism” that seek to mine the thin vestiges of past musical greatness to create a nostalgia-based narrative for which an admission fee can be charged or a community revitalization strategy developed (Let’s turn the crummy row house John Coltrane live in for all of 4 years into a museum that will ignite the redevelopment of North Philly!). Alas, popular music seems to be a recurring target for these kinds of pathetic efforts over recent years.

    I think it’s wonderful that certain communities have very strong and authentic musical traditions and I’ve got nothing against people who are willing to pay to line up and view musical artifacts…depending on the musician or topic I might well find myself among them (hey – Mrs. Ohmstead dragged me to an exhibit of Princess Diana’s wardrobe, which I actually thought was kind of interesting). What bugs and frustrates me is that my own hometown and plenty of other places sometimes seem unwilling to do the hard work of figuring out how to create a new narrative and nurture new art and music, defaulting to the much easier nostalgia route. Another relatively recent, local example involved the (fortunately) aborted effort to capture the essence of the Gamble & Huff/Philadelphia International Records era in a “Sound of Philly” museum (egads!).

    So now to Seattle…

    The Experience Music Project was Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s wet dream to create an appropriate shrine for his personal Hendrix hero worship. I can almost see the civic worthies gathered around a board room at Microsoft HQ brows furrowed in close attention and nodding in unison to Allen’s vision…Jimi Hendrix was born here dudes! Where is his museum? People would come from all over to see it! And I’ve got these guitars…”

    However, aside from the in-depth devotion to Hendrix and the N/W grunge scene, EMP otherwise imparts all of the musical meaning of a two-car pile-up between an interactive children’s museum and a small market branch of the Hard Rock Café. And to push the musical analogies to the limits of absurdity, the architectural quality of the building itself – the work of Frank Gehry – is akin to the tired and degraded many-times copied mix tape version of the Bilbao original. I’ve always appreciated Herbert Muschamp’s description of the structure as “something that crawled out of the sea, rolled over, and died”. My own observations revealed that the building doesn’t seem to be weathering that well either. Aside from all that, it’s a great place to let the kids run around before or after a trip to the Space Needle…and hey…the Hendrix shrine itself – The Sky Church – makes for a great party rental space!

    In closing I would return to an elaboration of Mr. Kid’s ultimate point…there are “real” rock museums….they’re called concert halls. And as LadyMiss notes…art museums (which are performance spaces for the visual arts) are much more akin to the concert hall than a “rock museum” ever could be. The very idea of rock museum reminds me of the old canard about fans always demanding the old stuff and not giving the artist room to grow. And that, of course, is the risk of nostalgia to the larger creative community.

  12. I was sorry I didn’t get to see this today.

  13. Great post. The Hendrix temple justified any of the nonsense.

    I went to an amazing vinyl record store in Ann Arbor today, Encore Records. For me, paging through old albums, talking with the clerks, etc is as fitting a museum to our late-20th century music as there is.

  14. bostonhistorian

    Webb Pierce’s Pontiac Bonneville convertible justifies the Country Music Hall of Fame.

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