In April, I had a chance to visit the newly opened National Blues Museum in St. Louis, Missouri while I was in town to lead a workshop with Ken Turino of Historic New England. As the “only museum dedicated exclusively to preserving and honoring the national and international story of the Blues and its impact on American culture in the United States,” its mission is “to be the premier entertainment and educational resource focusing on the Blues as the foundation of American music.” Those are pretty bold claims and we’ll have to give them some time to see if they can achieve them. In the meantime, I wanted to share my initial reactions to the primary permanent exhibit designed by Gallagher & Associates of Silver Spring, Maryland (near my hometown!), who also designed exhibits for Mount Vernon, Gettysburg Visitor Center, and Jamestown Settlement Museum.
Housed in a former historic department store near the city’s downtown convention center, the bold use of panels filled with text, images, video, textures, and colors as well as a strong horizontal lines that pull you through each space, make it a compelling and attractive design. Indeed, it’s so effective that it didn’t strike me until about halfway through that the exhibit feels two-dimensional and there are hardly any authentic objects. Sure, there’s an upright piano in the section about ragtime and a dramatic wall of leather trunks about life on the road, but they’re surrogates, merely stand-ins for objects that were actually used by Blues musicians. There are a few authentic objects, such as a guitar or costume, but the emphasis is on images and reproductions—to say the exhibit is “artifact-driven” is misleading. My sense is that this museum started as an idea whose collections “will come.” I love artifacts but I’m not much interested in the Blues, so I moved through the exhibit in about 30-45 minutes. Ken, on the other hand, spent a couple hours, which gave me more time to use the interactive activities (as well as get some great barbeque at Sugarfire Smokehouse next door).
Secondly, it has incredibly generous exhibit spaces and passages. Navigating the exhibit was comfortable and I could easily move around to watch the videos and read the labels without feeling crowded, but it also made the museum feel a bit empty and lonely. I suspect it was intentionally designed for the conventions that come to town, when it will be a popular venue for hosting events and receptions. Indeed, it has dedicated spaces with separate entrances for cabaret-style concerts and temporary exhibits that can be easily used for rentals.
Finally, the exhibit includes some unusual and fun interactive activities that rely on computer technology, such as large touch screens or video, as well as some clever programming. A small studio is set up for a jug band and visitors can go to one of five different positions to play along with a recorded song on a washboard, spoons, rattle, or another instrument and see themselves perform on screen. A more elaborate activity is a series of stations placed throughout the exhibit that allow visitors to construct a Blues song, starting with the lyrics, adding instruments, and finally mixing the various pieces together. These activities allowed visitors to explore the making of music, not simply its history, so they are a step up from the usual slideshow of pictures or collection of videos.
While the dearth of artifacts is disappointing for a museum, the dearth of music in the gift shop was surprising. It’s filled with t-shirts, baseball caps, coffee mugs, shot glasses, and other museum-branded souvenirs but incredibly no CDs, videos, or books on the Blues. Perhaps they’ve decided to avoid competition with Amazon.com and iTunes, but if you leave the exhibit inspired by the music and want more, you’ll have to be satisfied with a mug.