Music in Museums When the muse bestows her kiss

The exhibition "ECM - a cultural archeology" in Munich's Haus der Kunst
The exhibition "ECM - a cultural archeology" in Munich's Haus der Kunst | Photo (detail): © Ralf Dombrowski

Whether at exhibitions or concerts, German museums have been asking in more and more music, whilst music for its part has been increasingly seeking the proximity of museums. A win-win situation for both parties?

It was the concert event of 2015 in Germany. Kraftwerk, the Düsseldorf pioneers of electronic music, performed their complete works on eight consecutive evenings in Berlin. Tickets were sold out long in advance, visitors equipped with 3D glasses and the media covered the concerts extensively, although Kraftwerk refrained from playing a single new piece. The site of the event matched its retrospective character: the legendary building of the New National Gallery in Berlin, designed by Mies van der Rohe. Kraftwerk had already previously presented its œuvre at the New York Museum of Modern Art, an honour that has also been bestowed upon the Icelandic musician Björk.

Ripe for the canon: Kraftwerk

Afterwards, fans and media were divided as to whether what they had experienced was good concerts: with its appearance at the venerable museums, Kraftwerk was certified to be sufficiently “culturally valuable” for reception into the official art canon. But the concerts also possessed a symbolic power that went beyond the works of the band which had long ago emerged from the Düsseldorf art scene: now it was more conspicuous than ever that pop music had arrived in museums. Ulrike Groos and Sven Beckstette, the director and curator of the Stuttgart Art Museum, which has repeatedly invited music into its halls, find this development only logical: “That pop music should be performed in museums is consistent if for no other reason than that this music is itself in a phase of historization and museumization”. 

Pop music’s big sister, classical music, has of course been around in museums for much longer. There have long been museums where musical instruments are collected and exhibited, but also places that have nothing directly to do with music where concerts are held. The Berlin Museum of Musical Instruments is an obvious venue for live music, alone because it would hardly do many of the historical exhibits good if they only gathered dust behind glass. But the Elztal Museum in the Black Forest also invites music lovers to Schubert lieder cycles, and the New Museum in Nuremberg is the organizer of several series of contemporary music, for which there are scarcely any venues apart from festivals. Even the Kassel Museum for Sepulchral Culture and the Museum of Lacquerwork in Münster don’t miss the opportunity of organizing concert series.

If you study the programme of German museums, you see that everything is possible, ranging from classical music through modernist avant-garde to all varieties of pop music. Apart from spectacular events such as the Kraftwerk retrospective, however, this represents competition for traditional concert programmes only in exceptional cases. It is rather in the provinces, where stages for every form of music are in short supply and genres such as avant-garde and New Music are economically unattractive, that museums provide venues that would otherwise not exist. In return, musical performances can lure a new public into museums, if not necessarily, as Groos and Beckstette observe, a younger one: “Every generation has its own understanding of pop. That’s why performances of pop music don’t automatically draw droves of younger people into museums.”

Pop history is being reviewed and exhibited

Music is not only performed in museums but also increasingly exhibited. There are not only more and more museums exclusively dedicated to pop music, from the big Rock and the Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland through The Beatles Story in Liverpool to the small but lovingly appointed Romones Museum in Berlin and the Rock‘n‘Pop Museum in Gronau, whose most prominent exhibit is the complete recording studio of the legendary krautrock band Can; but normal art museums are also increasingly looking back on music history in their exhibitions. The exhibition I Got Rhythm, which was organized by Groos and Beckstette in Stuttgart at the end of 2015 and explored the interactions between jazz and visual art, received national attention in Germany. And recently Oh Yeah! Pop Music in Germany, an exhibition that begins with the Swing of the 1920s, opened at the Focke Museum in Bremen and will be on display there until the summer of 2017. 
I Got Rhythm at Kunstmuseum Stuttgart

There are several reasons for the ever greater proximity of the museum world and music. To begin with, pop music is now old enough not only to find itself in museums, but also for curators and public to have grown up with it. Then too, because of digitalization, it has become increasingly difficult for musicians to earn a living, which is why many seek and find new sources of income in publicly funded institutions such as museums and theatres. “There’s hardly a musician today who can live from the sale of sound carriers”, note Groos and Beckstette. “If a musician appears as an artist, however, he can market products differently. Art always promises a certain intellectual capital, which in turn promises its creator a gain in prestige.”

Interdisciplinary work is the future

Another trend bringing ever more music into museums is interdisciplinary work, which is growing increasingly popular amongst curators. One of its pioneers is Okwui Enwezor, Director of the Munich House of Culture. The Nigerian curator wants to convert his institution into “a universal stage on which the visual and performing arts come together”, and asked in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, “Why should we only present something? Why not also produce it?” Thus institutions of art become new clients for music, sometimes even patrons. In the long run, Enwezor, a former curator of the Kassel documenta and Venice Biennale, thinks all museums will open themselves in principle to all forms of art: “Today we no longer see the various art forms as individual species; we see them side by side in a temporal co-existence.”

A current example that shows Enwezor’s vision may not be a mere idea for the future but has rather long been an experienced present can be seen in Berlin. At the me Collectors Room, the exhibition My Abstract World is running until April 2017. There, visitors can download on their smartphones an interactive app with which they can hear a specially curated song selection to each individual abstract artwork. Thus, where visual art doesn’t know what to do next, pop music becomes an additional plane of abstraction.