By René Rodgers, September 22, 2017
Tomorrow the Birthplace of Country Music Museum will be filled to the brim with people – brand new visitors, regulars and old friends, people who passed by on the street and saw that there was something EXCITING going on inside, tourists who just happened to visit on one of our busiest days of the year. They all pass through our doors on Museum Day Live!
For those who don’t know, Museum Day Live! is a national event – held every September – where participating U.S. museums emulate the spirit of the Smithsonian Institution’s Washington DC-based facilities, which offer free admission every day, and open their doors for free to those who download a Museum Day Live! ticket. The event represents a nationwide commitment to boundless curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge wherever you are. Over 200,000 people downloaded tickets for last year’s Museum Day Live! event, and we had around 500 people at our museum in that single day. We are hoping for even more tomorrow!
Despite the exhaustion that comes after Museum Day Live!, it is one of our favorite days. For one thing, the free admission means that we see visitors who might not otherwise be able to afford a museum visit. It’s always great to see whole families come through our doors ready to spend a couple of hours together exploring their local heritage and history. It also means that we see people who think country music isn’t for them but decided to come in on Museum Day Live! because it was free – more often than not, they have a great time, which means we might continue to see them as visitors in the future.
But one of the things we really love about Museum Day Live! is the opportunity it gives us to create some really fun and engaging programming for our visitors. Last year there were two Museum Day Live! events – one in March and the other during the usual September, both of which were themed around specific concepts or other events.
The March 2016 Museum Day Live! focused on encouraging all people – and particularly women and girls of color – to explore our nation’s museums and cultural institutions. After thinking carefully about programs that fit in with this theme, we approached the YWCA Bristol TechGYRLS, a local after-school program based on a STEM-focused curriculum and geared towards supporting girls aged 9—15 who would otherwise have limited access to and experience with technology. The goal of the partnership was to give the TechGYRLS access to a new technology and the opportunity to explore the music history of their hometown in a meaningful way through the creation of a special radio program on WBCM Radio Bristol, our in-house radio station.
From February to mid-March 2016, we hosted the TechGYRLS at the museum four times for a museum tour, to work on their radio script, to record the program, and on Museum Day Live! This project introduced the students to the museum, gave them opportunities to engage directly with radio technology and learn more about how a radio station works, and produce their very own radio program. The end result was a half-hour radio program that was played during the Museum Day Live! event at the museum, both on air and in the museum’s Performance Theater, attended by several girls and family members, along with museum visitors. It was really gratifying to see the TechGYRLS explore the museum and share their enthusiasm and learning on air. For a taste of the radio show, check out the clip here.
Our goal with this program was to create a new opportunity for an underserved group in our community, while also sharing an enjoyable learning experience that would tie into that group’s needs. Not only did this partnership accomplish that, it also resulted in many of the girls becoming advocates for our museum and for the musical heritage of our area – we have seen them as school group visitors sharing the things they learned with their friends, at our summer camp, and at special events. The experience also had a huge impact on museum staff through a wonderful feeling of pride at what the girls created and the possibilities of future partnerships with the group. This program is also now saved in our archive collection for future use. A win-win for everyone involved!
September 2016’s Museum Day Live! coincided with the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which gave us the opportunity to celebrate this historic opening with them. As a Smithsonian affiliate, we got a poster exhibit that highlighted the history behind the NMAAHC’s creation and several of the artifacts and stories featured in the museum. These vibrant posters were a wonderful way to introduce our museum visitors to the new Smithsonian museum, inspiration for them to plan their own visit to DC to see it in the future!
We also live streamed the NMAAHC opening ceremonies and concerts in the museum’s Performance Theater, giving people the opportunity to participate from afar as luminaries and performers from President Obama and Congressman John Lewis to Angélique Kidjo and Patti LaBelle marked the day with words and song. We had our own performance by local musician Amythyst Kiah, belting out her signature “Jolene” along with a variety of other beautiful old-time and traditional songs, and we offered regular tours of our permanent exhibits with the focus on the African Americans who contributed to the success of the Bristol Sessions recordings and the early development of “race records.”
What was particularly great about this Museum Day Live! was that it led to continued programming in the months that followed with our “Lift Every Voice” series, inspired by the NMAAHC’s “Lift Every Voice” initiative to showcase the depth and breadth of African American history and culture across the nation and around the world. With our series, we created several radio spots focused on the history of “race records,” hosted a talk by CeCe Conway on the history of the banjo followed by a wonderful performance by Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, and invited Dr. W. A. Johnson of Lee Street Baptist Church and Professor Jerry Jones of Emory & Henry College to lead a community conversation on the African American experience in Bristol.
And so we come now to this year’s Museum Day Live! As always it is the week after our huge music festival, Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, and so we always go into it a little tired but we come back out of it re-energized by the numbers who visit and the great activities they enjoy. This year will be no different, and we are excited about the variety of things we have planned for the day. Some – like the screening of American Experience: Tesla and access to a Smithsonian Spark!Lab soundscape activity kit – are meant to go hand-in-hand with Things Come Apart, our current special exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. Others – like a performance by fiddlers Jake Blount and Tatiana Hargreaves – tie in well with our music content. All of them will bring a special Museum Day Live! experience to our visitors.
Hope to see you there!
René Rodgers is the Curator of Exhibits & Publications at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. For more information about this year’s Museum Day Live! at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, check out this link.