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New Harmonies, New Opportunities at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Many thanks for this guest post to Rene Rodgers, Ph.D, Associate Curator at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Would you like to be a guest author? Contact us.

At the beginning of August 2014, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum (BCMM) in Bristol, TN/VA, opened its doors for the first time after several years of planning, fundraising, community support, and finally, exhibit design and construction. For everyone who had believed in the museum becoming a reality and worked so hard to make it happen, the grand opening weekend was a real thrill with staff and volunteers, local and regional supporters, and visitors from many states and even other countries, enjoying the museum’s exhibits, live music performances, and a vintage radio show recording.

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum at night. Photograph by Fresh Air Photo

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum at night. Photograph by Fresh Air Photo

Since that first day, we’ve had the excitement of opening our first special exhibit, the development of a variety of education and outreach programs, the opportunity to partner with other local museums and cultural organizations, media coverage from outlets such as National Geographic and The New York Times, and so much more. And as one of the oldest Smithsonian Affiliates with one of the newest museums, we’ve had the opportunity to see firsthand the resources and support that are possible through our link to the Smithsonian.

In fact, we saw our community benefit from that affiliation even before the museum opened. Back in 2012, we were able to offer “Youth Capture the Colorful Cosmos,” an after-school astrophotography program for under-served middle school students using the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Micro-Observatory Telescope Network. This program gave these students access to resources and opportunities they might never have had otherwise, a truly significant benefit we were able to share with our community through the Smithsonian.

The New Harmonies crates arrive at BCMM. Birthplace of Country Music Museum

The New Harmonies crates arrive at BCMM. Birthplace of Country Music Museum

More recently, we have opened our first Smithsonian special exhibit – New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music. After its life as a Museum on Main Street (MoMS) traveling exhibit, New Harmonies has now found its permanent home at BCMM, something made possible through the hard work of our Smithsonian Affiliations National Outreach Manager Alma Douglas and Carol Harsh, Director of MoMS at the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.

After several months of negotiating the many steps in the process, 19 huge crates arrived on a truck in January of this year. Unloading and unpacking each of the crates was like opening a treasure chest – each one revealing another piece in the exhibit puzzle: a panel about sacred music, a diddley bow, a flip panel about the Kingston Trio, an audio box, a banner.

In March, we prepared the special exhibits gallery for New Harmonies. Two days were spent with our volunteers figuring out how the panels fit together – using directional pictograms that made it a little bit like putting together IKEA furniture – and working out the best configuration of all the elements in the gallery. We also created some of our own elements to add to the space – a “woodshed” where visitors can watch short videos about how to play various instruments and then have a go themselves and a lounge area where records can be played on a retro record player.

Visitors enjoy the New Harmonies exhibit on its opening night at BCMM, March 2015. Photograph by Haley Hensley, Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Visitors enjoy the New Harmonies exhibit on its opening night at BCMM, March 2015. Photograph by Haley Hensley, Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Visitors enjoy the New Harmonies exhibit on its opening night at BCMM, March 2015. Photograph by Haley Hensley, Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Visitors enjoy the New Harmonies exhibit on its opening night at BCMM, March 2015. Photograph by Haley Hensley, Birthplace of Country Music Museum

BCMM’s core exhibits focus on the story of the 1927 Bristol Sessions, their role in the development of the commercial country music industry, and the impact of the 1927 recordings on American music. New Harmonies is a wonderful fit for our museum, and its exploration of the distinct cultural identities of American roots music allows us to extend our mission beyond the focus of our core exhibits. It has also proved a wonderful opportunity for developing interesting programming that will give us the chance to bring new audiences to the museum over the coming months – from screening films by Alan Lomax and a concert by Piedmont blues artist John Dee Holeman to a shape note sing and Native American music and dancing. We are also looking into the possibility of sharing this exhibit with smaller regional institutions, libraries, and schools in the future.

Smithsonian affiliation is a real honor, and we are proud to be a part of the affiliate network. More importantly, however, Smithsonian affiliation gives BCMM the chance to bring new exhibits, resources, programming, and so much more to our local community – a way to expand horizons and opportunities. We are excited about what the future will bring!

Visitors enjoy the New Harmonies exhibit on its opening night at BCMM, March 2015. Photograph by Haley Hensley, Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Visitors enjoy the New Harmonies exhibit on its opening night at BCMM, March 2015. Photograph by Haley Hensley, Birthplace of Country Music Museum