the rock and roll museum sucks, big time

I recently visited Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s not a terribly good museum, even though it covers a topic, rock and roll, which is very exciting. In this post, I’ll try to figure out what goes wrong.

It always helps to start with a discussion of what museums do. In general, they (a) entertain, (b) educate/inform/indoctrinate, and (c) act as an archive or research center. It’s pretty clear that the R&R Museum isn’t scholarly, so we have to think about how the museum tries to entertain or engage the audience, or tell the audience something.

With respect to engagement, the R&R Museum is very underwhelming. The bottom floor is the big attraction. It has a very old school approach that one might call “worship” model. Get some holy relics, stick ’em up on the wall, and tell people how awesome it all is. It’s not a crazy model. After all, people only show up so they can get a little closer to the divine spirit of the music. But there’s a problem, the physical artifacts of music aren’t terribly interesting. It may be fun to have a section on fancy guitars or drum kits, but room after room is a little boring. Same for clothing, vinyl records, and sheet music. This is different than an art museum where paintings are designed to be stuck on walls and stared at.

Even if we accept the worship model, the R&R Museum has issues. For example, one would think that the inductees would each have a plaque, a photo, and maybe an explanation of what made them special. Instead, we get a wall of signatures etched into glass. Huge disappointment. If we want to hear some music, then there a few kiosks tucked away in a space near an elevator. In other words, the audience wants to really engage with the music and the people, not the costumes. And it doesn’t happen, which is disappointing given that we live in a world of guitar hero games and other forms of interactive music.

What could be done differently? First, I’d ditch the pyramid building, which severely limits space. Instead, rectangular floors with ample space. Second, the main floor would be dedicated to a modernized hall of fame format. The walls would each have a plaque for each inductee, photos, and other stuff. In the center, dozens of kiosks where people could listen to music and watch videos with headphones. Third, additional floors would be built on themes like “the instruments of rock” (famous guitars or weird guitars) or “history of rock” (with interactive guitar hero style kiosks). A top floor would be for more scholarly exhibits, films, or “new developments” (e.g., rock cross overs, hip hop, photography, etc). In other words, build the bulk of the museum on the FUN parts of rock (the music) and touching base with your idols. The “extra stuff” would be for the gear (instruments/costumes) or for experts. Right now, it’s all reversed.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 30, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in culture, fabio, nonprofit

11 Responses

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  1. I wonder why you so quickly dismiss the question of whether the museum is “scholarly” when it has a relatively significant library and archive facility:


    Jenn Lena

    July 30, 2014 at 1:05 am

  2. Thanks for the note. My error. This was not explained to the audience.



    July 30, 2014 at 1:19 am

  3. I visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few years after I moved to the rustbelt (which was many more than a few years ago, so my memory is fuzzy) and had a similar reaction. I loved the first floor and the memorabilia, but I wanted to be a social historian before I became a sociologist so the artifacts weren’t just about the musicians, but fascinating glimpses at time periods and cultural contexts. After that the museum was mostly a blur. The one thing I remember wondering while I was there, that I think is related to one of your points above, is how esoteric induction into the hall of fame was. There were bands I was sure would be there that weren’t and many who I had never heard of, despite coming from a family that listened to a wide variety of genres. Even after a long video highlighting various inductees, I didn’t have a clear picture. I might have missed an explanation, and I wasn’t familiar with the museum outside of my visit, but I left wanting to know more about the algorithm. Like you say, maybe devoting space to what made each band special would make the museum more interesting or relatable.



    July 30, 2014 at 3:20 pm

  4. In an attempt to respond to @jessica, I have a question for those of you who have visited the museum (unfortunately, I’m not in that group): do the exhibits feature only memorabilia from artists who have been inducted?

    WRT the “algorithm:” if you’re referring to the induction process, no such thing exists. Here’s how it works for performers (cut and pasted from the Hall’s website): “Artists become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record. Criteria include the influence and significance of the artists’ contributions to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll.

    The Foundation’s nominating committee selects nominees each year in the Performer category. Ballots are then sent to an international voting body of more than 600 artists, historians and members of the music industry. Those performers who receive the highest number of votes are inducted. The Foundation generally inducts five to seven performers each year.

    Beginning in 2012, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened Nominee voting to fans around the world. The Top Five Nominees as voted by the fans count for one ballot entry, which is weighted the same as individual ballot entries submitted by members of the international voting body.”

    There is a widespread belief that the nomination process is not fair (that the nominating committee is unresponsive to widespread consensus among experts about which eligible performers should make the first cut), that lobbying of voting members takes place, and that the votes are not accurately counted/reported. Whether any of these are true, I can’t say.

    Liked by 1 person

    Jenn Lena

    July 30, 2014 at 5:42 pm

  5. Jenn: The displays are all over. Some very recent stuff. My beef isn’t with who makes the hall, but with the experience.



    July 30, 2014 at 5:57 pm

  6. Jenn: I assumed that someone who studies music – or was familiar with the hall of fame and/or a musician – would know more (like you do), but as a novice I was left wanting more. I would have loved an excerpt of the nomination letter or some story about each group. Even if there isn’t a well-articulated path to inclusion, tell me about the specific “contributions someone made to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll.” Maybe this was there and I don’t remember it, but I think that the nagging feeling that I didn’t get it or that the decisions were so haphazard was one of the reasons that I didn’t enjoy it all that much (but I’m a big fan of order, predictability, rules, etc). Like Fabio said, too, the other exhibits didn’t really capture what seems to be the museum’s mission (chronicling the development and perpetuation of R&R). I hope you get there someday soon, but one of the best rustbelt museums is the Studebaker Museum. You’ll have to make a return appearance in South Bend to check it out.



    July 30, 2014 at 6:11 pm

  7. Wow–it sounds like the museum has really missed an opportunity to engage visitors. Particularly amazing considering the emphasis placed on such things within arts administration. I don’t know much about the curators or administrators there but I’ll start to ask around and see what their peers think. Maybe there’s consensus that it’s poorly administered.

    I don’t know if you’ve been to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, but I’d point to it as an excellent example of a popular culture museum that does a good job of using multiple media and text to engage visitors and to tell some of the history of an artistic community. (With the usual caveats around how that shuts out other narratives, people, community members.)

    And I think I am headed back to South Bend next year…maybe we can organize a group adventure to Studebaker? Omar? Omar?


    Jenn Lena

    July 30, 2014 at 6:49 pm

  8. @fabio (& others) – I’m curious as to whether you’ve been to the Experience Music Project out in Seattle, as something of an alternative or counter-example to the R&R HOF. I’ve been to both–though the HOF visit was probably about 15 years ago–and found it to be exactly as you put it: hey, music is cool enough on its own, so we can just throw some stuff together and people will naturally be drawn to it. As Jenn points out, this is a seriously missed opportunity.

    The Experience Music Project, on the other hand, does a great job of mixing in swag with multimedia and opportunities for some history (and even sociology) lessons along the way. I left thoroughly impressed when I visited a few years ago.

    I wonder if much of the discrepancy doesn’t come from the expectations set by the names of each place. Or, more simply, by the expectations one has for any kind of “Hall of Fame.” The expectation, I think, for such places is to have history, education, exultation/fandom, reverence, and paraphernalia all rolled into one, all with the tidy exclusion of anything that might be deemed embarrassing to the field/topic being hall-ified (e.g., Pete Rose’s ban from the baseball HOF). The R&R HOF seems not to touch on at least a few of those things, nor does it attempt to welcome in casual fans/observers.

    The EMP, however, doesn’t set any expectations beyond (quite literally) “experiencing music.” In so doing, it ends up being almost surprising that it is as engaging and informative as it is.

    The EMP is by no means the world’s greatest collection of all things musical–and I’m sure it’s not without its detractors for one reason or another–but I do think a lot of the difference comes down to what one hopes for or expects from a HOF versus a more standard museum or interactive experience.

    Liked by 2 people


    July 30, 2014 at 8:04 pm

  9. I may be the only person here who wasn’t disappointed by the R&R HOF. But I think my enjoyment of it was moderated by the fact that my kids were with me and I got to see it through their eyes. The kids really enjoyed every bit of it. We ended up spending 5 hours in the museum, which is much longer than I anticipated. Honestly, I can’t remember what we did the whole time, but I do remember liking that my kids could see how rock music has evolved over time and fragmented into different genres. I think they were enchanted by all of the old costumes and concert memorabilia. I also remember thinking the movies provided a nice overview.

    The problems you mentions seems to be characteristics of HOFs of all types. I think they tend to be pretty superficial in the kind of information they give. The R&R is no different in that way, and if I remember well, it’s actually more information-rich than most. In fact, I’d put the amount of information offered in each HOF in this order R&R>Country Music>Baseball>Football. The pro football HOF was the worst. Terrible actually. Baseball was better but it was still pretty thin given the rich history of the sport.


    brayden king

    July 30, 2014 at 9:20 pm

  10. @noahakin: Let me just echo your appreciation for the EMP Museum and promote the springtime Pop Music Conference. I’m on the organizing committee for this year (the call will go out very, very soon, and the theme is wonderful!) and attending the conference presents an excellent opportunity to spend days roaming around the museum and listening to some of the most exciting journalism and scholarship on music being written today. Feel free to contact me directly if you want more information (jcl42 at columbia dot edu).


    Jenn Lena

    July 30, 2014 at 10:42 pm

  11. It’s not too early to think about organizing a tour of EMP for ASA2016… (Hint, hint, Jenn.)



    July 31, 2014 at 10:54 pm

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