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African American Museum Exhibit Explores Musical Roots

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As a way of recognizing African American History Month, the Smithsonian is drawing attention to its 'Musical Crossroads' exhibit at its new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.

Guest Post from SoundExchange

In recognition of African American History Month, we are highlighting the “Musical Crossroads” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

What do Parliament-Funkadelic’s Mothership, Chuck Berry’s 1973 Cadillac Eldorado and the fedora Michael Jackson wore during his 1984 Victory tour have in common?

They all are part of the “Musical Crossroads” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C.

Musical Crossroads” tells the story of African American music with photos, video, narratives and artifacts – lots of artifacts.

The exhibit’s 350 artifacts “are crucial to telling the story. In this day and age, you can rely on media to do a lot of the story telling and you can rely on digital technologies. But there is something about the object… They evoke memories and associations,” said Dwandalyn Reece, Curator of Music and Performing Arts at the museum.

“Musical Crossroads” covers 6,200 square feet of air conditioned space on the fourth floor of the monstrous museum, which opened September 24, 2016.

Since the museum is new, Reece effectively had to build the exhibit from scratch.

“For the last seven years, this has been my life,” she said.

She asked recording artists, their families and the estates of artists to donate their clothing, instruments, sheet music and other artifacts–including Parliament-Funkadelic’s Mothership.

“We really pounded the pavement, so to speak,” Reece said.

George Clinton donated the Mothership in 2011. It is a 1,200-pound replica of the stage prop the band used during their performances. The band’s management company got rid of the original in 1982.

In addition to donating his Cadillac, which is parked at the entrance of the exhibit, Chuck Berry also donated the guitar he called “Maybellene.” The family of opera singer Marian Anderson donated the clothing she wore during her performance in April 1939 at the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson’s performance is significant in part because she was banned from performing at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution because of her race.

Reece’s exhibit tells the story of African American music beginning with the arrival of the first Africans in America. Organized around musical genres – from gospel to hip hop to rock to jazz and rhythm and blues – Reece illustrates the role music has played in African American history, as well as the role African Americans have played in our nation’s music history.

Reece’s favorite part of the exhibit, tucked behind the rap and hip hop display, is the Neighborhood Record Store. It includes hundreds of album covers and an interactive exhibit that music fans can use to research music and music history.

Reece said she hopes people who see “Musical Crossroads” gain a better understanding of the social and cultural context of music and think about what it takes to make music, beyond an artist’s performance on stage.

“I want people to learn something new, and I want them – when they listen to music or go out to a performance – to really think about music from a broader perspective,” Reece said. “If we can point people in that direction, I think we’ve done our job.”

Numerous recording artists already have toured the exhibit, including Clinton, Common, John Legend and Questlove. Def Jam founder Russell Simmons also toured the exhibit.

Simmons “was really all about the history,” Reece said. “So many of these artists are informed by the history… and (for them) to see that they are part of this larger narrative really seems to touch them in a way that I never expected.”

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