Museumification, A Newish Word: Fortunately, it’s not a Dirty One When it Comes to Guitars

by Dan Daley • in
  • Last Word
• Created: October 6, 2017

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We’re familiar with the stages of grief and the arc of the typical pop star career.

At each of a number of by now well-defined points along the way, you have a pretty clear idea of what the next one will be, whether you’re preparing to say goodbye to a loved one or just watching one of the Kardashians crash and burn (again – what was up with that Pepsi commercial?).

Creating a taxonomy that guides us through some of the harder-to-navigate passages of life is a tried and true coping method. So what does it tell us when we see a series of museums dedicated to the guitar opening up nationally? Do we have coherent series of stages developing here, or is it just circumstantial evidence?

Earlier this year, two significant museum facilities, both dedicated to the guitar, opened their doors. In Nashville, Belmont University used a 400-plus-piece, $10.5-million collection of acoustics instruments, donated by the estate of the grandson of Broadway composer Jerome Kern (responsible for such classic songs as “Ol’ Man River,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”) as the core of its new Vintage Instrument Museum. They’re off to a great start – the collection includes six Gibson F-5 mandolins made in 1922-24 and signed by Gibson’s acoustic engineer Lloyd Loar, a pair of 1960 sunburst finish Gibson Les Paul Standard guitars made between mid-1958-60, numerous vintage Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster guitars, including a 1955 Stratocaster and a 1952 Telecaster, and a dozen pre-WWII Martin 000-45 and D-45 acoustic guitars, considered by many to be the most ornate Martin guitars made in the 15-inch-wide size. Just as remarkable is who the school has named as the venue’s curator: Kern family friend George Gruhn, founder of Gruhn Guitars and a vintage instrument expert, who also serves as co-executor of the estate.

The museum is in it for the long haul: they’ve made plans to add interactive exhibits, which will let visitors experience the guitars beyond simply looking at them in a glass case, and there are other plans for the museum that include a performance space where many of the instruments will be played by both well-known and student musicians. Several of the instruments may also be made available for students, faculty and musicians to borrow for recordings and concerts. And an ongoing fundraising campaign further seeks to raise another $300 million for the institution by 2020.

Then there’s the new Songbirds Guitar Museum in Chattanooga, where a $200 million collection of 1,700 significant guitars from the early 20th century to the 1970s are housed in a 7,500-square-foot venue that opened in February. Songbirds also plans to be interactive, displaying approximately 500 of the instruments in permanent and rotating exhibits, grouped by manufacturer, theme and era, with a selection of vintage acoustic, electric, jazz, bass, mandolin, banjos as well as related memorabilia. And like all encounters between music and fans these days, Songbirds will offer a VIP experience (at additional cost, of course). And as if they didn’t have enough in common, the two venues will also share Vince Gill, the Durward Kirby of country music and guitars (and I mean that in a nice way), who will act as part of a seven-member advisory board for Belmont’s museum and as the “ambassador” for Songbirds.

No Dead Guitars Here

A certain Washington Post article earlier this year predicting the death of the electric guitar was more an elegy than a eulogy. It offered a lot of 50- and 60-yearold voices attributing the guitar’s four-decade run as the ultimate musical icon to the talent, ambition and wretched excesses of another batch of 50- and 60-year-olds. Their lamentations sounded like a telethon raising funds for a guitar museum or two.

On the other hand, sales of acoustic guitars are on the upswing, at least in terms of dollar value, up 2.6 percent in 2016 versus the electric guitar’s 1.7 percent decline last year, and acoustics represent nearly two thirds of guitar market sales now. Taken as group, guitars are treading water, but hardly in danger of dying. More likely, they’re in a lull that reflects the change in the nature of popular music of the moment. So a nascent trend of museums dedicated to them should be less a cause for concern and more one of reflection and rumination.

The interactive nature of these new guitar venues is also a hopeful note: by offering some hands-on access to a curated collection they increase the chances of inspiring younger potential players.

In fact, museums in general now are less about preserving a fading past than about stimulating thought about their topics for the future. It’s why science museums have been the fastest-growing segment of that market for a number of years now. So it’s probably a good thing that guitars are getting some curated attention from a museum industry that has spent the last few years learning how not to keep everything they collect under glass.

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