Rock and Roll Museology - Brown Bag Seminar, 2nd February

“Rock and Roll Museology”
Capturing Popular Music Heritage in UK Museums and Galleries
Dr Robert Knifton

A researcher on the AHRC’s Beyond Text Project, ‘Collecting and Curating Popular Music Histories’, Robert Knifton comes from a museological background, having worked at TATE Liverpool on the ‘Centre of the Creative Universe’. Whilst the TATE project focused on artistic and creative pursuits in general, his current research position uses broad surveys, as well as specific case studies and interviews, to investigate the ways in which museums have engaged with, collected and represented popular music heritage.

Whilst exhibitions of popular music have increased in recent years, with examples including the short lived National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, Rock and Pop at the V&A, the BME at the O2 Arena, and the soon to appear ‘Wondrous Place’ at the Museum of Liverpool, the academic museological discussions upon the subject remain limited. Perhaps because it is so close to the hearts and identities of many individuals and communities, the issues which surround the philosophy, collection, and display of ‘popular music’, whatever that term might mean, are manifold and difficult. At times, they speak directly to ontological questions surrounding the nature of the museum, and of objecthood itself.

What, then, are the issues which Robert will have to deal with in the next few months of his investigation? Initially, at least, the concept of what classifies as popular music, and its status as a museum subject in its own right needs to be investigated, even if it cannot be finally classified. ‘Pop music’ is a difficult and slippery term, and its associated products can cross several traditional museum categories. The V&A, for instance, situates many items which could be classified as ‘popular music’ in their Theatre and Performance, Prints, and Word and Image collections. From each of the museums surveyed by Robert, only one devotes a taxonomic category to popular music, and only 10% of museum collection policies mention it specifically. However, in the UK alone there are over 12 000 items in museum collections which might well fit into this category. It’s boundaries, however, are difficult to determine, both chronologically and in terms of its intrinsic nature as an object. When did pop music start? Where is its cut off point in terms of museum display and collection? What should we be collecting as examples of ‘popular music’? Not easy questions to answer.

Difficulties also arise in terms of the practical collection of the artefacts themselves. Not only must the museum compete with the financial power of the private collector when attempting to collect and acquire iconic objects, but they must invest extra time in researching these possible acquisitions, and their surrounding policies, particularly difficult in current economic climes. One solution, Rob suggests, is the development of relationships with both collectors and the music industry itself. This can, however, bring its own problems when the expectations of the donor and the realities of the museum world clash.

This is, of course, clearly apparent in the problems associated with the representation of popular music, as seen through the eyes of the institutions which collect and display them. The V&A, for example, has emphasised the design and performance aspects of its holdings, seeking costume and memoriabilia which is out of the ordinary, unique, or emblematic. They are, therefore, less inclined, not without reason, to collect the ordinary items, the standard jeans and t-shirts of Oasis and have a tendancy to favour such things asAdam Ant’s iconic highwayman outfit?

Closely related is the question of mythology. When dealing with such culturally significant figures, products, and places, so bound up collective memory and community identity, the relationship between fact and fiction needs to be clearly defined. Should museums tell the ‘truth’ to the destruction of a powerful, and socially important myth? I wonder, in fact, whether a myth can ever reach a point where it has become a kind of truth of its own? To mitigate this issue, some museums have taken on the use of oral histories, for by utilizing the popular music as an access to the past, to memory, and to self, they can preserve a legend whilst showing its subjective, illusory quality.

Of course, the world of music, of performance, of celebrity is built upon tales and illusions. Objects, might be seen as less important than the stories which surround them. Material culture can only do so much in representing the ephemeral elements of popular culture, and this is a debate which Robert is keen to further. The British Music Experience tends to favour stories and concepts at least as much, if not more, than objects, and many of the material artefacts displayed are loaned temporarily. This in itself raises questions about the nature of the museum – is it about the object, and if so, what kind of object is it about? How can the museum, in the world of popular culture, retain its museuminess and perform a different role from television, radio and magazines? What and importantly, who is it that museums represent, and can the world of pop music combine with this activitiy?

When we moved into the Q&A, Simon raised an interesting point about the nature of musealisation, asking if when popular culture becomes musealised, does it cease to be popular culture? Could you, hypothetically, ever ‘Punk’ a museum without destroying the rebel qualities of that genre? How do you go about collecting something which is so fleeting and immaterial as the performance of a rock concert? How do you, as Ross Parry noted, collect something such as Bubblegum Pop, which is deliberately ephemeral and transient? Should you, in fact, collect such a thing? What exciting possibilities are offered by technological approaches to collection and interpretation, including the online archive such as that of Home of Metal, or perhaps the conceptualisation of your media player as your own private, personal music museum?

This does, of course, beg the question of what the museum actually is. Is it a place which displays material culture? Is it an online site, a building, a collection, and what is it a collection of? Does it display the truth of one, or of many, for we must, of course, also remember that that which is collected and displayed in museums is only a singular view, and often with popular music it is the view of the obsessive collector. But is this necessarily a problem, and is it a problem that different museums conceptualise and display items of popular music in ways which suit their own institutional status, such as the ‘high art’ approach of the V&A? Music is more than one thing, more subjective and multiplicitous than people often give it credit for, and any museological dealings with it need to understand it as such. Is there an ideal space, somewhere in the contemporary, distributed museum, in which popular music, in all its fleeting, transient joy, can find a home?

It is time, Rob argues, that these questions were addressed. For some reason, the world of popular music has not been given the same consideration and governmental support as the other Arts. This is something which needs to change, and I think as Popular Music Studies matures as an academic discipline, research by individuals such as Rob and our own Kathleen Pirre-Adams will be at the vanguard of achieving this.

Rock On, guys - Ride the Lightening!


Amy said…
Just a teensy comment about Adam Ant's costume (collected instead of Oasis' uniform): probably made by Vivienne Westwood, therefore, fits nicely with V&A's collecting policy. Designer more significant than person that wore it.
Jenny said…
Well, this was one of the things which we pointed out in the discussion - perhaps that didn't come out in this write up. We discussed how the institutional ethos of the museum impacts upon what is collected and why - and also why that is not a bad thing necessarily, but rather an evocation of the museum as an individual and characterful entity.

Thanks for the comment Lady A!
Rob Horrocks said…
I'm going to take the opportunity to advertise the Home of Metal online archive of memorabilia contributed by fans mentioned above...

And having done that, thank you, and Rob for an opportunity to take part in these conversations.

Rob Horrocks
Home of Metal &
Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research
J said…
Thanks Rob, and we are looking forward to you presentation at Curiouser and Curiouser!
Stephanie said…
Great write-up! Will (continue) to follow the Home of Metal project with interest.

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