Monday, July 26, 2010

Museum Review: Grammy Museum

Grammy Museum
Los Angeles, California
Recommendation: 3 stars (out of 5)

At the end of 2008, the organization that produces the Grammy awards opened a museum at the new L.A. Live complex next to the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. I had not heard about the museum before coming to the area, but when I saw a mention for it in a travel magazine, I thought, “What the heck. It’s two blocks from my hotel, I ought to see it.”

That they were offering discount tickets cemented my interest in visiting.

Although I’m a pop culture junkie, most of my interest is in television, not music. And I was ultimately indifferent about the other museum of pop music that I visited--Seattle’s Experience Music Project. It seemed a little too focused on impressing the visitor with its high-tech headsets and stations and overwhelming visitors with its depth of music trivia. I visited late in the day and felt overwhelmed by both the quantity of information and its excessively high price.

Based on that, plus my belief that the Grammy Museum was really just a creation to fill a space in the LA Live project, I wasn’t expecting much. Given these low expectations, the museum more than exceeded them.

The museum had a clear and simple story to tell: how records get made and recognized. The museum opens with a dramatic video welcome, which leads into the story of the background of the Grammys—that is, how music gets recognized. But the rest of the bulk of the permanent exhibition really focuses on how records get made. Part of this explores the different genres of music and how they emerged. Part of the exhibit focuses on the technical aspects of recording, and includes a room that presents the major innovations in recording by playing simulations of recordings in the gramophone, mono, stereo, surround sound, and MP3 formats. That seemed like an effective use of exhibition technology, as was the simulation of some of the most famous recording studios in the world. Another part of the exhibit explained the recording process, and still other parts explained the contributions of different professionals to the success of a record. Although the exhibit did not go deep, it did provide complete coverage.

What was most interesting, and pleasantly surprising, was that the museum provided balanced coverage of the subject—that is, it provided not only the good part of the story, but the less than pleasant parts. For example, the display on 50 years of the Grammy awards explained some of the controversies that arose over the years, including boycotts by artists in genres who felt that their genres were ignored by the Academy. Similarly, a temporary exhibit on controversy in recordings acknowledged some of the less than pleasant moments in the history of records with a cause.

All in all, the museum provided a clear, well-explained overview of the recording industry and provides the average listener with the background needed to understand the Grammys and appreciate all the effort that goes into recording. And it does this by making effective use of objects and photos, appropriate integration of technology (without some of the gizmos that don’t really seem to add much at similar facilities), and without overwhelming the visitor.

As a visitor, I was entertained and as a student of museum exhibitions, I picked up a few tricks.

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