In 1993, a seminal research on popular music in museums stated that ‘although music is probably the most thriving and universally enjoyed of the live arts, our museums have almost entirely failed to make efforts to collect or record evidence of its twentieth century manifestations’ (Arnold-Foster and La Rue, 1993, p. 20); “(…) the world’s greatest collection of popular music’ instruments and memorabilia is not under the care of a museum at all but is owned and displayed by The Hard Rock Café” (Arnold-Foster and La Rue, 1993, p. 8–9). This is a contradiction, if one considers the strong visuals included in popular music culture, from the colours of the Brazilian Carnival to rock band Kiss’ emblematic make-up. As Wall remarks (2003, p. 249): “the visuals of popular music have often been presented as an inferior part of the experience“.

Twenty years after Foster and La Rue’s research, the fast growth of popular music as temporary exhibition themes is noticeable, such as Kylie Minogue: Image of a pop star (Victoria & Albert Museum, 2007); Pop Peth (St. Fagan’s Museum, 2009) and David Bowie Is (Victoria & Albert Museum, 2013). It is also a foundation theme for museums, like The National Centre of Popular Music in Sheffield (NCPM). This shift in “”traditional boundaries between high and popular culture are in the 21st century becoming ever more permeable and indistinct; there is a widespread recognition in the sector that what is most significant is the connections and stories that a display can evoke for visitors, balancing emotional and intellectual responses“ (Knifton,2012, p.27).  Even though this should be embraced as recognition of popular music’s inherent value and its ability to inform social history, the instrumental use of the subject by these institutions can also lead to problematic displays, potentially disrupting its social value.

In 2005, the UK government published a report assuming an inherent link between the value of museums and audience development. It recommended that museums should “act as agents of social change in the community” (DCMS, 2005, p. 3). This report seems to consolidate a mind-shift in museums that was probably first institutionally remarked on in the Santiago Declaration, establishing that museums should take part in consolidating the conscience and communities it served, besides expanding its audience (icom.museum). Museums have also realised the potential of popular music in attracting visitors, as suggested by the Victoria & Albert Museum’s (V&A) Head of Access, Social Inclusion and Community Development: “to keep music at the door of museums seems nonsense. It cuts off an important aspect of people’s cultural and social heritage and deprives museums of one of the most effective ways of bringing in new audiences” (Leonard, 2010, p. 173).

These issues are also present elsewhere in the world. In Brazil, a country with a huge musical tradition, they also failed to collected popular music systematically. Now, the country has developed a brand new museum in Recife – Museum Cais do Sertão (MCS) – funded by the Secretariat of Economic Development, which will be used as the illustration for this paper. Thus, this article focuses on the curatorial strategies at MCS in comparison with British initiatives, in order to look at the possibilities of representing popular music within such framework. As briefly exposed, the context around these cases must be considered, since popular music can also be a tool to serve institutional goals.

Authors (Leonard and Knifton, 2012; Edge, 2000, Thornton 1990, Moore, 1997) have explored the ways in which the material culture of popular music is represented in these institutions. “Popular music material culture has been displayed within museums as a way to offer narratives of place, social history, celebrity and also as a way to engage new audiences (…) Although such developments are to be welcomed (…) there is nevertheless a danger that the afterlife of the popular music object within the museum could displace and distort the histories and functions it embodies” (Leonard and Knifton, 2012, p. 68). For instance, one of the main reasons for the failure of the NCPM was due to its lack of ability to link popular music with personal memories. The importance of the curatorial work is exceptional, in cases like this, where the topic is of an ephemeral nature, in so far as it is “(…) a delicate source in museum discourse because it encourages nostalgia but requires curatorial work to bring the critique “(Brabazon & Mallinder, 2006, p. 97).

Now, one of the main issues when curating popular music in museums is sound. Museums are traditionally places for silence contemplation of art, where sound and noise are almost considered to be the same, disrupting the experience. Edge (2000, p. 2) addressed some of these concerns, outlining the pragmatic factors that “account for the absence of pop in many museums”. This leads to particular problem of ascribing value to popular music. Accepting Frith’s (1998) concept of music as performative[1], Edge claims that meaning and value are not inscribed in boxed microchips or even in its drums and wires but in its sounds, performance and reception “(2000, p. 2). To this specific issue, technology has been a great tool. At David Bowie Is, for instance, a review described how Sennheiser’s ‘3D audio’ headphones, (…) seamlessly guide listeners through the audio clips corresponding to where they’re standing within the exhibit” (Mapes, 2014). Still, one must consider that on placing popular music in a museum, disconnecting the objects to the sound can result in a complete failure of contextualizing the material culture.

Sound is not the only peculiar complication. Collecting is also a main concern, with many authors; specifically researching the processes on popular culture (Moore 1997; Leonard 2010; Edge 2000). Most of these studies claim that museums and institutions should work closely with private collectors in order to achieve better results.

To analyse all these cases, and particular the case of MCS, I use a specific framework. Thornton (1990, pp. 87-88) noticed how popular music was considered relevant through commercial criteria, such as: “Sales figures, biographical interest, critical acclaim or amount of media coverage”. From these criteria, she noted four main strategies used on reconstructing popular music culture: “listing, personalizing, canonising and mediating”. The trouble is that these organisational concepts follow a hegemonic narrative, which can easily exclude sub cultures and movements, to fully represent social history:

“The first approach offers a history in form of lists. (…) Here, popularity is a question of quantity; A second strategy revolves its history around an individual (…) In different ways, they personalize the past; a third way (…) discusses only the excellent work in the manner of histories of art. (…) Operating with a definition of culture which lies between the anthropological notions of culture as a way of life (…) these histories suggest that performers (…) symbolically reflect and resist, but never resolve the tensions of the larger community. Finally, the fourth method “(…) uses particular documents (typically music and trade magazines) to define the purview and set the agenda of its histories. “ (Thornton, 1990, pp. 87-89)

These methods are a simplification, but they help to reflect upon the ways popular culture is represented. Thornton (1990, p. 89) is concerned with the weight of the commercial side and persona plays in that role: “If sales figures and personality (…) are two main principles by which pop events are assigned historical significance, then products and people are more likely to be historicises than services and institutions”. Furthermore, when it comes to the criteria that considers media coverage “the cultural experiences of large parts of the population – not in tune with the tastes of music critics or not already represented in the music press – will be lost”.

These ideas can be easily noticed at the case of the National Centre of Popular Music (Brabazon & Mallinder, 2006) and are also found on the discourse of the press.

Building on Thornton’s conceptual basis, Leonard (2010) developed a trio of usual methods of popular music representation in museums, which I shall adopt here. These three methods are usually found combined – to a lesser or larger extent – but they help to clarify the institution’s conceptual foundations. The first method is the canonical method – which combines the personalisation and the canonisation framework from Thornton. The second method places popular music in museums in the same way as it would place artefacts/art. These first two methods are quite fragile – as exposed by Thornton, they are based upon products, people and the press. A review of David Bowie Is illustrates these topics and its connection to particular agendas: “What’s happening at the V&A is, quite literally, a canonisation. (…) So now we know who Bowie is (…) we get the god, like the government, that we deserve” (Conrad, 2013). Finally, the third frame sees popular music represented as social or local history, which usually means that it will explore a form of hegemonic history. This was the case of NCPM, for instance, as well as the foundation for the Pop Peth exhibition.

MCS was initially conceived by the former president of Brazil – Lula – as homage to Luiz Gonzaga in his 100th anniversary. Gonzaga is the inventor of Baião, a music genre in Brazil, particularly representative of the state of Pernambuco (where Lula was born) and even more so of the Sertão – an arid region in the state. “Baião is a genre of music with roots in the music of the rural northeast of Brazil, that became hugely popular with a countrywide urban audience in the 1940’s through the radio and recorded performances of Luiz Gonzaga (…) to represent the musical culture of his native Brazilian northeast and (…) encourage the diffusion of that tradition, which was then unrepresented in the record and radio industries, despite the large scale migration of north eastern to the southern cities of Rio and São Paulo.“ (Horne, Feldman et al, 2014,pp. 31. 32)

Gonzaga has over 1700 songs, with lyrics relating to local issues as well as universal themes of life and death. He is a mythological figure amongst all Brazilians and a reference for many of the exponent’s of the new Brazilian music. Furthermore, “the success of Gonzaga’s musical regionalism in the popular culture arena provided a way in which Brazil’s rural poor could participate in the national dialogue to redefine the country’s racial and cultural identity“(Crook, 2005, p. 231). MCS is located by Recife’s port, ideologically bringing the arid Sertão to the seaside. The Secretariat of Economic Development of the State of Pernambuco, as opposed to the Secretariat of Culture, funded the museum, on the argument that this would be an important institution for “the creative economy” (Sdec.pe.gov.br, 2013). It was a £220,000 investment to achieve the most modem and technological museum in the country, and a reference in museums of sound around the world. Considering its instrumental aims as well, it is clear how the popular musician, in this case, wasn’t just considered for his musical achievements and the possibilities of narrating social history. It also had in mind the popularity of Gonzaga as a symbol to connect to new audiences. “The acceptance of this material by the museum is indicative of a broader shift in thinking about music not just as a leisure practice, or even as an art form, but as a highly important cultural industry which feeds into the national economy.“ (Leonard and Knifton, 2012, p. 77)

According to the curator, it is a “highly democratic museum (…). We are not working with folklore. Gonzaga invented a new genre, one of the pillars of Brazilian music. Our goal is to mix tradition and modernity” (Iris, 2013). The curator – Isa Grinspum – is also responsible for the highly successful Portuguese Language Museum in São Paulo (museudalinguaportuguesa.org.br, 2015). Following her latter work, she rounded up a team of collaborators to create a comprehensive narrative of the Sertão through Luiz Gonzaga’s life. Amongst the team of experts, there was also literature professor and artist Zé Miguel Wisnik, musician Tom Zé and filmmakers.

The museum combines a personal take on Gonzaga in order to narrate multiple stories and the History of the Sertão. So, a popular music icon is used as thread to the narrative. This case presents strategies and possible solutions liked to the issues so far presented, on sound in museums, collecting and representation.

First, it is important to note that MSC’s building was created in consonance with the curatorial view, which allowed for experiments and unusual rooms. The museum was built with a big open-air area in which activities shall take place, and vast rooms to provide a good flux and create a shared space. This is difficult to emulate at already established institutions, such as the V&A or St Fagan’s, for instance, but maybe could have been thought of for the case of Sheffield’s National Centre for Popular Music. At MSC, the visitor’s experience starts through a circular room below the ground, with a 220º screen that displays a film specially made for the museum by preeminent director Marcelo Gomes, intended to emotionally involve the visitor in the daily life of Sertão. After this “baptism, the experience is divided in seven main spheres – live, work, sing, occupy, believe, migrate and create – which the visitor decides how to explore. The museum is emphatic on using music’s ability to create powerful connections on the personal level of memory and nostalgia: As Wall (2003, p.22) affirms, “music is not a separate phenomenon of identity, but an integral part of the process of identity making, part of the way we begin to understand and articulate who we are” /

All of these sessions of the museum are built differently. Some, such as the audiovisual rooms, have films representing the Sertão. It includes movies from Glauber Rocha, the notorious film director who had the Sertão as its background and theme, as well as short movies produced for the museum by film directors from Pernambuco, such as Lírio Ferreira and Paulo Caldas. In other sectors, one can find the clothes of Gonzaga, instruments, and even instruments used on labour in Sertão – materials of popular culture. Some objects are placed as work of art, following Leonard’s framework, a representation of a moment in time. The space given to Gonzaga’s intricate hand-made intricate outfits relate to the V&A’s conceptual underpinning that focuses on performance-related materials. These costumes were chosen not for their everyday quality, but for portraying a moment of Gonzaga as performer

The diverse rooms and experiences were collected through different procedures. There was an extensive field research. The museum also encouraged and sought donations of personal objects, from private collectors and other institutions.  For instance, there is a reproduction of the typical houses of the northeast, with objects collected personally by a team who travelled across the Sertão. His widow donated Zé Dantas’ bow tie. Dantas was Gonzaga’s music partner. Instead of only placing the object with a tag, the curator opted to display it with the letter that was sent to them by Danta’s widow; the object was contextualized, acquiring value in its personal attribute.

This can be linked to Pop Peth, which contained a recreated teenager’s room, fostering identification reactions among the visitors: one of the key issues with Pop Peth was a sense of capturing the heritage of the everyday that might otherwise be lost: practices, ephemera and objects of popular music that are under threat. (…) The exhibition placed this engagement with popular music within a framework of representing cultural life within Wales” (Leonard & Knifton, 2012, p. 89). In the same way, by reconstructing a popular house of the Sertão with objects collected from popular houses, and also displaying the tools of labour with videos of their uses, the museum attempts to bring the Sertão closer to the capital of Pernambuco; and, possibly to people who had never been there, and do not envisage that area as a culturally rich place. As the Pop Peth exhibition “functioned to repackage the displayed material culture of popular music as signifiers of an updated yet still essentially historicised notion of folk heritage within Wales” (Leonard and Knifton, 2012, p. 70), so does MSC – both attempts on regional scenes, which manage to resonate on a universal level. This is definitely aided by the disseminating power of popular music.

These procedures for the collected materials continue a debate on what are the museums of today supposed to collect. How to break the barriers of what is supposed to be heritage; how to collect the contemporary in order to be able to grasp a true sense of the past – even it is not a remote past? If we follow the assumption that we need museums that are spaces for shared experiences, for active visitors and that can engage with the public, it is vital to change its practices as well upon collecting.

As far as interaction and immersive experiences go, MSC uses several techniques to engage the audience. Since Gonzaga’s music is the conducting thread, there was a particular concern with having spaces in which his music could be freely explored. Some solutions are both interesting and entertaining, and can resolve some of the main problems announced by Edge (2000). There is a room with musical instruments for the public to try – following the example of the Brentford Musical Museum, for instance (Edge, 2000, p. 3). There is also a “karaoke” room in which the public can sing Gonzaga’s songs. In contraposition, the musician Tom Zé created a game in which the visitors are asked to create solutions for the problem of the drought of the Sertão. It seems that the technology is at service of ideas. As previously mentioned, there is always the risk of ending up with a hegemonic narrative of a version of history. At MSC, besides the approaches so far discussed, one of the ideas to transpose this problem is through video interviews with several migrants that left the Sertão, which even includes one with former president Lula.

So far, the museum has had very successful numbers of visitors. However, it remains to be seen if a new government will judge the museum’s maintenance as a priority. After all, a curator’s work can only go so far. Museums created on political agendas and public funded can suffer considerably from policy shifts. As Edge (2000, p.2) mentions, particularly relating to popular music, “Museums are so often state or local authority funded institutions perpetuating nineteenth century museological conventions and social ideologies of improvement and instruction which operate in a way oblivious to pop music’s shifting, diverse discourses and its industrialised material culture. “

Taking MSC as an illustration, I have related it to conceptual framework in popular music exhibitions formatted by scholars who have been exploring British Cases. This discussion must be continued in order to solidify the basis for a new contemporary museum, in the form of a democratic space, far from just being a place that collects and conserves objects. It should be a space for shared experiences, in which people can learn and be touched by what is in there. Furthermore, it should be prepared for an active audience – as suggested by Leonard (2010, 2007) and Brabazon and Mallinder (2006), amongst others. The visitor has the ability to choose with what he wants to engage and in which way, and museums must consider that each visitor brings its own experiences and expertise, and will want to find some kind of representation in that space – even if it’s completely far from his current world.

If the curator’s role is to decide upon a narrative and how it is told, then it needs to think about all sorts of audience for such stories. And one must always bear in mind, on recent attempts on museums of sound, that “these exhibitions not only offer insight into the practices, customs, sociality and business which forms part of everyday musical life, but can also be understood as ways through which the museum sounds out its own purpose and practice (Leonard and Knifton, 2012, p. 82)

Isabel Passos Sachs

Isabel Passos Sachs graduated in 2007 from International Relations in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Isabel has 10 years of experience working as a producer in the cultural sector. Her first job was at an Art Gallery and from there she went to work with film on international events (i.e. Brazilian Film Festival in Poland, the Rubbertracks festival). In 2010, founded the award-winning Euforia (www.euforiaproducoes.com) – a theatre company and music agency. In 2014, moved to London to pursue a master’s at City University (MA Culture, Policy and Management). Currently working at LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre).

[1] Frith evaluates popular music as performative, linking the construction of our soical identities through responding to music’s performance. He argues that listening is also a performative act – a corporeal response and also a social gesture.

Featured Image: Museu Cais do Sertão, 2014, Photo credit: Fred Jordão


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