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Popular music is exciting. It captures stories reflected in smoky mirrors and hidden in shadows. As a soundtrack for ageing, it is a medium of honesty and challenge, a sonic Dorian Gray with a backbeat.
Currently, Perth’s music is in the midst of a boom (of rhetoric if nothing else). This momentum has provided the push for an exhibition at the Western Australian Museum. Titled Spin: WA Music from underground to on-the-air, it is publicised as a history of the State’s music. Running from February 13 until May 9, 2004, and publicised as a tourist initiative for visitors to the city, it falls short of such an expansive aim. The reason for this breach in expectation poses an interesting problem for those of us interested in thinking about popular culture and how to talk about it in public.
Museums are never "about" objects, they provoke ideas and discussion. Spin is a chronological narrative of music, spanning from the 1960s to the 2000s. While the early period of music is adequately covered, attention to the recent success – which has justified and triggered the exhibition in the first place – is patchy.
Chronology is a limiting way to organise popular culture. The passion of pop makes time loop, accelerate and pause. Many stories and ideas fall through the cracks of linear time. Spin tells visitors much about white, heterosexual men who play guitars and drums, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. Women are a ghostly presence, "represented" by an un-filled dress haunting the corner of the exhibition. Indigenous music, through myriad language groups and communities, is mentioned on a short descriptive card located – without irony – near the back of the exhibition. Immigrants are erased from musical history, even though nearly half the population of Western Australia is either from somewhere else or are the children of those who left their homeland. Walking through Spin, it is as if feminism, reconciliation strategies and multiculturalism never happened. The best of popular music makes a difference, changing the world one note – and one dance step – at a time.
These social gaps triggered musical erasures. The domination of rock and guitars reduces hip hop and electronica to the fringes of the exhibition, rather than the base of Perth’s night-time economy. A long time home of handbag house, Perth’s drum 'n' bass communities are internationally recognised, yet unrepresented within the display. The influential dance label, Off-World Sounds, founded by RTR-FM’s Station Manager, Pete Carroll, and legendary (ex)member of Cabaret Voltaire, Stephen Mallinder, is left off the list of Perth record labels. The reasons for this exclusion are unclear.
Popular culture exhibitions must aim higher than Spin. The level of interactivity between culture and visitor is low. While posters line the walls, there is too much text and not enough media diversity. Guitars are silenced behind glass.
Three sound pods punctuate the exhibition space, presenting guitar-based musical selections. But these sounds were isolated from the silent posters, guitars and dresses trapped behind the glass.
No brochure or flyer was produced for distribution to visitors, with a website being offered as a replacement. When locating digital content for Spin, the publicity material was short, dated and lacking coherence, asserting that the exhibition “will celebrate the continuities and differences … and showcase its flair and originality.” Obviously the spinners of Spin are not aware of the extraordinary developments - world-wide - in the presentation of popular culture in museums. Mixed media is used to reveal plural stories, narratives, images and ideas. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney is a fine example of popular cultural interactivity, as is the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford. Perhaps two of the most evocative models of display that could have assisted Spin’s curator were located in that other great musical region, the north of England.
Urbis, the museum of the city, is located in Manchester and offers its whole building as a welcome to visitors' experience of urbanity. Four floors of permanent, interactive displays about city culture mobilise a dynamic use of music and tactility, light and space.
Popular culture challenges museum curators. Particularly, popular music exhibitors can learn much from the display strategies deployed in sport museums. The key initiative is to move beyond the static presentation of artifacts behind glass. The National Football Museum in Preston for example is the archetype of how to use popular culture to convey attitudes and history. Time, space and ideas are dealt with intelligently, muddying linear narratives. Visitors walking through the exhibition view social and historical events on the left and a football history on the right. They play table football, complete a "Match of the Day" commentary and conduct a virtual visit of every league ground in England.
Turning style into an argument is the greatest challenge for popular cultural museums. Spin treats a museum like a vault, but architecture holds an important role in framing and representing the aims and goals of the institution. Space is filled by a precise deployment of sound. In Preston’s museum, music summons distinct eras. In the Mood swings with Rock around the clock. Booths are available to sit and hear oral history and testimony.
Instead of presenting quotes on card fixed to a wall, as used in Spin, original voices can be heard. The past is brought forward – actively and evocatively into the present. Objects are not kept away from visitors. Instead, interactivity is encouraged.
These are only a few examples of innovative modes of display in the world's popular cultural museums. Popular music provides even more opportunities than sport for museum visitors to commence a journey through memory, history and identity. The rise of screen cultures has changed visual and aural literacies. Frequently, visitors will know more about the music than the curators. Distancing visitors from their own culture alienates them from their own memories.
A new museology, when inflected by cultural studies, offers innovative links between sound and vision, memory and popular culture. Spin was mounted without the assistance or advice of trained scholars in popular cultural studies, creative industries strategies, history, internet or library studies, and it shows. It has learnt few lessons of popular cultural museums around the world.
Obviously it is socially and politically important that popular music has been recognised by a publicly-funded, state-based museum. But Spin is a wasted opportunity. When the Contemporary Music Taskforce released its report in September 2002, one of their seven recommendations was to create a History of Western Australian Music exhibition at the Western Australian Museum. Greater research and expertise were required to bring this important recommendation to fruition.
One lesson of popular culture – and there are many – is that people endlessly remake music, film and fashion to fit into their own lives. While wandering through Spin, concerned by the lack of energy and passion around me, I attempted to enter the first sound pod, being held back by a mouth-locked couple using the music as a soundtrack for their embrace. When leaving the exhibition and peeking once more into the pod, the clenching couple had returned, creating new meanings from The Triffids' Bury me deep in love. Even when unintended, music creates movement and interactivity that shatters the glass.
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