National Museum of African American Music

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The newly opened National Museum of African American Music, in Nashville Tennessee, paints a comprehensive picture of all genres of Black music. Contributor Franck Mercurio speaks with the designers at Gallagher & Associates who created the exhibitions for the new interactive museum in the heart of “Music City.”

American music is African American music.

This is the message that Robert Malootian, Senior Design Director at Gallagher & Associates, and Liza Rao, Studio Director at Gallagher & Associates, would like visitors to take away from the new National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) in Nashville, Tennessee.

Located in the center of Nashville’s Arts District, right across the street from the Ryman Auditorium, the NMAAM opened this past January 30, just in time for Black History Month. Numerous setbacks over the past 20 years, however, prevented the museum from opening earlier. But the new museum’s exhibitions, designed by Gallagher & Associates, present a truly comprehensive story of African American music, exploring all different genres, and many of its creators.

“There’s no museum that does exactly this,” says Malootian. “The African American Museum in DC covers many things—and they obviously do a great job—but the NMAAM is really focused on the music and puts it into perspective on where it came from and how it started from the rhythms of Africa.”

The NMAAM’s content is encyclopedic—covering all types of African American music from gospel to blues to jazz to hip hop—but the curators’ approach in presenting these topics is less “textbooky” and more narrative, showing the connections between different musicians and music-makers over time.

Gallagher’s approach in conveying the historical narratives is based on the idea that music is a communal experience—and as such, the NMAAM exhibits invite visitors to participate in every way.

“Music is a lived experience; it’s a communal experience,” says Malootian. “So, the idea of communal and the idea of lived experiences became central to what we did as designers. It’s really all about telling the story from the African American perspective yet being open to drawing in the diversity of anyone who’s come into the museum.”

Interactivity—on all levels—is key to visitors being drawn in and experiencing the music presented within the museum.

“All the exhibits are multi-dimensional, bringing together music and movement, film and interaction, emotion and history,” says Rao.

One fun interactive is titled “Singing with the Choir.” Using green screen technology—and some sophisticated karaoke—visitors see themselves placed within a gospel choir as they sing along with its members. The take-away is digital footage of the participants immersed in the choir.

“It’s like going to a Black Baptist church,” says Malootian. “You can’t help but not be moved by that experience. It’s about engaging physically, through singing, and becoming a part of that choir.”

Many of the NMAAM’s interactive exhibits are not isolated, individual experiences, but rather invite participation from everyone, and the “River of Rhythms” gallery provides one of those communal experiences. A long table containing a timeline of milestones in the history of African American music runs down the center of the space. But every 20 minutes, the lights come down and a virtual show begins featuring performances by Prince or James Brown or Christone “Kingfish” Ingram (blues artist). Their performances, projected onto the surrounding walls, fills the entire gallery with music, providing a communal experience for everyone in the space.

“It’s a takeover moment, so the whole environment gets turned into the show,” says Malootian.  “The music, the lighting—it’s a moment when everyone can participate, and people start dancing in the space! And that was the intention: to create this sense of community and communal interaction.” 

The NMAAM not only aspires to be an educational venue that documents African American contributions to music, but to be a FUN place where visitors can FEEL the music and not just learn about it.

“We hope that visitors understand the resounding impact of African American music on our culture,” says Rao. “And while we want them to learn about the roots of African American music—and understand its resonating impact on Global music—we also want them to have fun and be moved by the music!

To learn more about the National Museum of African American Music, visit their website.