The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum first opened in September 1995 in Downtown Cleveland, and it took me until just recently to make the two-and-a-half-hour drive to visit it. The visit was as much underwhelming as mesmerizing, which is why it may be worth looking at it from a public relations perspective.
While some major renovations are planned for later this year, I’m not sure they will be the medicine the Hall of Fame may need. Let me explain.
The building is a museum in the 1980s sense of the word, obviously conceived before the Internet, before smart phones, Google, YouTube, and of course, all social media. The elaborate and largely primitive displays have long been outdone by that smart phone in your pocket.
The notion of standing at a kiosk to watch a bunch of dated documentary-style vignettes and use touch-screen to read factoids is dull. There has to be a better way to connect visitors to rock and roll.
I can only imagine what a Disney Imagineer would think when he or she walks through this museum, or what one might do, if given the budget and resources, to change this place. I’m thinking interactive holograms, animation, experiential exhibits, surround screens and surround sound, and that’s just a start. No one should come away from this museum underwhelmed.
The other notable omission was an actual “Hall” of Fame, where we can see something representing every inductee since the Hall of Fame was created. Roughly 60 miles to the south of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where the busts of every NFL inductee sits in a room that has an almost church-like feel. To be sure, we wouldn’t expect the same atmosphere at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but in fairness to the inductees, there should be a place for visitors to note and reflect on what each and every inductee’s contribution to music has been.
Why It’s Worth the Trip
But enough of the critique. The power of this museum and why it is still worth the trip is what this museum has that no other place in the world has, and that’s the stuff.
Regardless of which is your favorite music genre or no matter what your age, you will find at least one thing that just transfixes you and takes you back to a time in your life. It will make you wonder what life would have been like without this contribution to rock and roll. Not only for you, but maybe for our culture.
For me, there were a couple of things. One was Johnny Cash’s desk, sitting humbly in the middle of a hallway, behind glass, yet no more than 18 inches from me. It looked and felt accessible. This was where the legend wrote, and presumably created some of his best work, and maybe made a few of his worst mistakes. It’s like it is just waiting for him to come back into the room in a few minutes.
Or, there is the actual Mellotron organ, a very primitive synthesizer, the Beatles used to create that eerie sound on the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and others. That sound has been imitated by others in many genres ever since.
Just like Cash’s desk, the Mellotron sits simply under glass, in the middle of foot traffic, and maybe 12 inches or so from us. No fancy lights glorifying it. No ropes to keep us away. Just there, waiting to be played…again. I couldn’t help but think of the stories this thing could tell of Lennon and McCartney hovering over it, experimenting to bring their own musical vision to life.
The simplicity IS the power of some of these exhibits.
If there is a common thread throughout the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – and I’m not sure this is intentional – it is how simple and primitive were the tools, the instruments, and the outfits that legendary performers used and wore as they created something entirely new to become cultural icons. This speaks completely to their own talents.
It’s the theme of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. No matter what the time period or genre, Rock and Roll has always been about pushing the envelope, doing something that has not been done before. This hall is all about the innovators.
The lesson for the rest of us is that it’s not about the tools, the “accepted” or traditional formula for success, the trappings, or the timing.
Ultimately, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame pays homage to those individuals who were compelled to be who they were regardless of what other people thought of their chances for success. It fittingly salutes those who put passion before pragmatism. And it shows us that no matter what your goal and your limited resources, if you have a dream and the right amount of creative drive, you can fulfill it.
My PR Take
If most of these legends asked the public to tell them at the time what kind of music to create, there would never have been rock and roll. Sometimes, it has to start with you, the honesty that’s in your message, and your own understanding on how to use your medium to the fullest.