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American Quarterly 53.3 (2001) 489-510

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The Secret Lives of Objects;
The Secret Stories of Rock and Roll: Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and Seattle's Experience Music Project

Russell Reising
University of Toledo

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, One Key Plaza, Cleveland, Ohio.
Experience Music Project, 325 5th Avenue North, Seattle, Washington.

If anybody has cornered the market on revealing the secret lives of objects, it is novelist Tom Robbins, although I'm not aware of any museum curator ever consulting Robbins for philosophical or logistical advice regarding an exhibition. To be sure, Robbins's novels frequently address matters central to the power of rock and roll-sex, philosophy, drugs, freedom, and outlawry--and often themselves possess the power simultaneously to arouse, outrage, inspire, and excite. But might those qualities not also inform exhibitry? Still Life with Woodpecker (1980) and Skinny Legs and All (1990) dramatize alternative models for communing with the inanimate particularly well. In Still Life, Princess Leigh Cherry sequesters herself for months and focuses all of her attention on a pack of Camel cigarettes, confident that hidden meanings [End Page 489] lurk within its visual field. Sure enough, after enough time and focus, she believes she has discovered the secrets encoded within the iconography of Camel packaging. Skinny Legs and All offers an infinitely more vital vision of the inanimate by casting various objects as actual characters, repositories of personal and communal histories, full of observations, desires, and discourse. Both novels reveal the secret lives of objects, Still Life requiring human obsession to animate the inanimate and Skinny Legs liberating the objects to speak for themselves and reveling in their rhetorical lavishness. In their respective approaches to museum displays, Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (Rock Hall) and Seattle's Experience Music Project (EMP) align themselves quite nicely with the visionary schematics of Robbins's novels. The Rock Hall enables, requires actually, visitors to cast themselves imaginatively back into the world of rock and roll objects, while the EMP empowers its guests to enter into sustained dialogues, reminiscences, and debates with its own magnificent collection.

Cleveland, Ohio: Birthplace of "Rock and Roll"

I. M. Pei's beautifully pyramidical building for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum emphasizes glass and metal. It provides both spacious exhibit areas and extraordinary views of downtown Cleveland, whose renaissance the Rock Hall helped launch. Indeed, with its programs for the Cleveland public schools and its much heralded "American Music Masters" series, which pays annual tribute to some luminous precursor to rock music in the form of a conference and several musical celebrations, the Rock Hall both houses rock and roll artifacts and serves as a significant force in public education (Fig. 1).

Pei's design enables temporary or special exhibitions like a showing of Linda Eastman McCartney's photography or a tribute to John Lennon, while also showcasing such grand displays as Pink Floyd's Wall, U2's Zoo TV cars, and the flying hot dog the jam band Phish flew above a Boston Garden audience at midnight on New Year's Eve 1994. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum shines as a repository for the material artifacts, the "crazy diamonds," of the rock and roll era, especially in its extraordinary collection of photographs that document everyone from its most recent inductees to Big Mama Thornton and hundreds more. The "Rock of Ages: Early Influences" wall of portraits pays homage to those pioneers--Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, [End Page 490] [Begin Page 492] Billie Holiday--whose various mojos coalesced into what we now, even still as a convenient shorthand, call rock and roll.

The best orientation to the sprawl that is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is Mystery Train: A Journey through the History of Rock and Roll, a half-hour film shown in two parts. Its visual...


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