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Exhibiting the History of the Electric Guitar in American Museums

By Edward Wilson-Stephens

As part of my PhD research into ‘objects of electronic sound and music in museums’, I am exploring the potential for exhibiting electric guitars (amongst other electronic musical instruments) in museums. Within these publicly accessible spaces of knowledge and experience, electric guitars have the potential of being presented in ways that differ from, and expand upon, what could be discovered elsewhere. For example, although many electric guitars once owned by famous musicians are displayed in Hard Rock Cafes, they are often exhibited with limited information and are preserved silently behind glass or kept out of visitor’s reach. Additionally, the display of electric guitars within these dining establishments helps to generate an aesthetic experience involving classic rock memorabilia. This practice is in danger of reducing the instrument to a one-dimensional object: an icon of American rock music frozen in time, devoid of a history of innovation in design and use.

However, after visiting museum exhibitions of electronic musical instruments in the UK, I discovered that their exhibits are also preserved silently in glass cases or kept out of visitor’s reach. I therefore decided to travel to Canada and the USA where I explored over thirty museums and art galleries across a five-week period in the hope of discovering a wider scope for exhibiting objects.[1] Although similar orthodox approaches were experienced within institutions abroad, a plethora of additional examples demonstrated how the material, visual and audio dimensions of electronic musical instruments could be presented to the public.

The orthodox approach: an electric guitar associated with the band Cream, displayed in the Hard Rock Café, Universal Studios, Los Angeles.

In this article I will discuss examples of exhibition work observed at two American museums: the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Scottsdale, Arizona (a musical instrument museum, as the title suggests) and the Grammy Museum in Downtown Los Angeles, California (a museum of popular music). My argument, here, is that although many may experience the electric guitar through popular forms of entertainment as a one-design, one-use, American icon of rock music, curators can expand upon the history of the instrument's multiple designs, uses and sounds in various ways, depending on the exhibition and museum contexts in which the instrument is displayed. Therefore, curators have the choice of either expanding upon or divorcing the association between the electric guitar, America and rock music. Divorcing this link can be beneficial because not everyone wants to hear rock music, but some people may enjoy the sounds of the electric guitar when they are used in other forms of music from around the world.

Musical Instrument Museum Phoenix:

Although the museum’s collections have only been stored and exhibited at this location for less than a decade, the building and exhibition work creates the look and feel of a traditional European art gallery. Exhibition material largely consists of an ethnographic collection of historic musical instruments displayed in separate galleries named after different parts of the world. Instruments are accompanied by works of art indigenous to each geographical area. These features help to create a sense that this is an institution of high art which celebrates (and preserves) the older, traditional forms of (mainly acoustic) instruments that are usually associated with high-brow forms of music such as classical and jazz.

I arrived at the museum in time for the temporary exhibition The Electric Guitar: Inventing an American Icon at the Musical Instrument Museum.[2] In comparison to Hard Rock Cafes, the title of this exhibition already signifies an exploration of the history of the instrument’s design, without being constrained to the history of rock music. Although this is an exhibition on the electric guitar as an American instrument, the temporary exhibition space could otherwise allow curators to break away from the ordering of instruments by geographical regions and focus instead on a specific instrument, musician or type of music whose impact transcends spatial restriction.

Although this is not the only exhibition presented in a room that is separate to the main content of the museum, the separation of the electric guitars from the ethnographic collection of traditional instruments presents a problem: the electric guitar, as an Icon of popular culture, is isolated from what may be considered as high art elsewhere in the museum. This is also the case with the museum’s permanent Collier STEM Gallery which demonstrates the relationship between electronic musical instruments (including electric guitars) and science and technology. These examples help enforce the link between electronic musical instruments, modernity, popular culture and accessibility, in contrast to acoustic instruments, tradition, high art and professional musicianship. This is also true of the museum’s interactive space, the Experience Gallery, where the experience of using instruments as interactive exhibits and making noise (an experience often associated with science centres, for example) is separated from the traditional practice of silently observing the form and craftmanship of instruments, where only the curators, conservators and technicians at the museum (as well as those who originally owned the instruments) are allowed to touch them. However, it could be argued that both the separate temporary exhibition and interactive space offer an access point to the rest of the museum, helping the museum to attract additional visitors who may have otherwise felt that visiting the MIM would be an experience they would not enjoy.

A simple timeline demonstrating some of the innovations in the design of electric guitars since 1932, displayed in The Electric Guitar: Inventing an American Icon exhibition at the Musical Instrument Museum

Within the Electric Guitar: Inventing an American Icon exhibition, a wide variety of historic and rare electric guitars were displayed in a rough chronological order and framed within the themes Defining the Electric Guitar, Inventing the Electric Guitar, and Influence of the Electric Guitar. Notable examples included “The Get Drum” custom electric guitar built by rhythm and blues musician Bo Diddley, various double-necked guitars, and Tommy Tedesco’s Telecaster whose unique and interesting markings helped bring to life stories relating to the impact of the instrument and the musician on multiple genres of music. The objects were accompanied by text and visual content, which included the printing of short, friendly quotes on the walls such as “now the man in the last row can hear” (which helped explain the benefits of electricity in the amplification of vibrating guitar strings).

As an additional way of demonstrating how guitars are used and what sounds they make, the museum’s website states that ‘most displays are enhanced by state-of-the-art audio and video technologies that allow guests to see the instruments, hear their sounds, and observe them being played in their original contexts.’[3] For this exhibition, video montages of popular electric guitar performances were shown on television screens. Visitors could listen to the footage by pointing their individual Sennheiser guidePORT audio guide devices at the screens in order to stream music from a wireless hot spot and listen through headphones connected to the device. In juxtaposition to the footage of noisy concerts, these private listening experiences coerced visitors to observe the content in silence: an experience that has more in common with the appreciation of high-brow music at concerts of classical music (concerts, of which, the instruments found elsewhere in the museum are closely related to) and the traditional reverence expected in art galleries. In addition to the audio-visual content in this exhibition, the museum’s Experience Gallery also provides the opportunity for visitors to touch, hold and play guitars (although none of them are electric).