- Motown Museum
For those who like their history lively, Detroit’s Motown Museum educates, entertains and may inspire historians to better integrate oral accounts into exhibits. The museum tells the story of the Motown record label, named for Detroit, the Motor City. In the late 1950s, young songwriter Berry Gordy was happy to be selling his songs—until he got the royalty checks. When Gordy received a $3.59 check, his friend Smokey Robinson said Gordy might as well go into business for himself. So in 1959 he borrowed $800 and founded the Motown Records Company. Within a few years, the company released hits like “Money (That’s What I Want),” “Please Mr. Postman,” and “Shop Around,” and Motown became the first African American–owned record label to achieve major success. His original house on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit had become an eight-house empire devoted to business, recording songs, and developing artists.
Gordy moved the record company to Los Angeles in 1972. His sister, Esther Gordy Edwards, remained in Detroit to run a corporate office at the West Grand Boulevard location, which was nicknamed Hitsville, USA. But thousands of people from around the world disturbed her work, begging to peek inside the famous Studio A. She decided the world needed a Motown Museum. In 1985, she founded the museum and in 1987 the state of Michigan declared it a historic site.
The Motown Museum is privately owned, with tight control of artifacts and records. Tour groups are led through and kept on schedule—one group must be out at the appointed time so the next can come in. No photos are permitted in most parts of the museum. This is partly for copyright purposes, as the displays deal with famous people and their images and works.
The tour begins with a sixteen-minute film that integrates old footage, Motown hits, and clips of the stars reminiscing about the company’s heyday. Some of the interviewees will be familiar to most visitors, such as Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas and Smokey Robinson. Others are important but lesser-known music history figures, such as Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg, the first female African American radio deejay and an important factor in the spread of the Motown sound.
In addition to this use of oral history, the exhibitions include interview excerpts. The current exhibit, Boulevard to Broadway, includes displays about how [End Page 421] Gordy and his staff took talented but raw young African Americans and turned them into stars. Their education included grooming, comportment, and choreography. Katherine Schaffner of the Marvelettes well remembered the tutelage of Motown’s choreographer. “We would work with Cholly Atkins sometimes for hours. I mean you wouldn’t feel like fooling with anybody else, because by the time Cholly got through beatin’ it into you, you were done, you know? But every artist had to attend these classes so when we went out, we went out as a finished product.”
Coraleen Rawls, the museum’s collections manager, said they rotate exhibits approximately annually. She oversees the ongoing oral history project and selects snippets for new exhibitions. She worked on “The Truth is a Hit,” an exhibit that traveled to New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in 2014. Rawls is made for the position—she is a native Detroiter with a master’s degree in library information systems focusing in archival management in African American cultural institutions. Her favorite Motown song is “My Girl,” which brings back her coming-of-age-in-Detroit memories.
Museum visitors get to see the restored flat upstairs where Berry Gordy lived when starting his label, hear Motown hits while touring the museum, and even participate in a “My Girl” singalong in Studio A. Details like an old candy machine still filled with candy bars in faded wrappers bring the story alive. Baby Ruths, Stevie Wonder’s favorite, were always kept in the fourth slot from the left so Wonder could find them by touch.
Unfortunately, the museum’s archives are closed to the public and limited to...