From slave-era field hollers to the musical blends of Kanye West, a new collection at the Smithsonian institution tells the story of African-American music as a vehicle of cultural survival and creative expression.
“Music is the life force of African-American culture,” curator Dwan Reece said Feb. 12 during a talk about the exhibit at the Oberlin Center for Convergence. “It tells a story of 400-plus years of music-making, how it sustained life and created avenues for people to survive.”
In Musical Crossroads, an exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, music proves to be indivisible from the black community. Organized by genres and themes, the 6,200-square-feet gallery uses artifacts and media to showcase the influence music has had on African-American history and American music.
The exhibit is not a hall of fame or a “best-of” showcase, Reece said. Rather, it is a story about people and how the black community has used music as a form of protest just as much as a form of identity.
Nearly 350 objects in the exhibition — from headsets, costumes, and instruments to handwritten lyrics and album artwork sketches — share the history of “who we are and who we have been as a country,” she said.
In one wing of the exhibit is the “Neighborhood Record Store” that allows visitors to thumb through vinyl records and explore songs through genre evolution and regions. Visitors can also sit in a producer’s seat to create a track or dance along to Tupac songs as they air through museum speakers.
The gallery needed to be experiential because “music can’t be flattened and a museum is doing just that,” Reece said.
Curator Timothy Burnside said the collection started completely from scratch.
“You start a museum because you have an amazing exhibition you want to use but we had absolutely nothing. We just had a wish list,” she said.
There is still much collecting to be done, she said. But by its opening, the collection featured Michael Jackson’s Victory Tour fedora, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac and Marian Anderson’s outfit from her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial.
“Their legacy is going to be there forever. Actually forever,” Burnside said.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the only national museum devoted exclusively to promoting and highlighting the contributions of African-Americans.
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.