A museum is a charged space. They hold objects, tell histories and stories and generally function as a public service. How does the public respond to that service? For decades musicians have been exploring this concept. By both taking over well-known museums, or in some cases making their own, performers question how we should respond to these institutional spaces.
One of the most significant examples of this comes from Barbra Streisand’s video in the Philadelphia Museum of Art for her 1966 television special, Color Me Barbra. In the film, Streisand belts out tracks (from the album of the same name) while moving from gallery to gallery surrounded by sculptures, tapestries and paintings. In the second number “Yesterdays” she appears as a curious visitor wandering around the space and touching works of art until she finds a piece that inspires her. In another memorable sequence for the song “Gotta Move”, Streisand struts and dances her way through one of the PMoA’s modern art galleries in a bright, geometric print dress that echoes the cubist art on the walls.
Streisand chose to shoot at the PMoA because the found the art to be “so extraordinary and so inspirational” that it made her “want to climb into the paintings,” and “play in the period rooms.” Given the title of the album, album artwork, and this playful approach, Streisand makes the museum space her own, upholding the idea of museums as a place where people can integrate themselves into the space and become living works of art.
Almost twenty years later, Run-D.M.C. used a different approach to museums for their 1985 King of Rock music video. In a fictional Rock n Roll museum (the video predates the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame Museum by ten years), Rev-Run and D.M.C are told by a white security guard that they don’t belong there because, “This is a rock museum.” Dressed in black leather suits, black fedoras, and crisp white adidas, the presence of black militancy, jazz fashion, and street style conveys a powerful mood of recognition and resistance inside an institution that has denied them the right to exist. As they walk around the museum, the pair engage with a variety of “cultural artifacts” including guitars and four white busts wearing Beatles wigs.
Watching videos of musical greats, they mock a Buddy Holly performance, respectfully turn their heads to the camera at Little Richard and later, shake their heads at a Jerry Lee Lewis performance. They even step on Michael Jackson’s famous white glove as a way of rejecting the universally lauded artist who was on the more respectable and conservative end of black popular music at the time. By the end of the video, the duo begin to break artifacts, knock over the black velvet ropes that exclude them from the ‘Rock culture’ section and spray paint “Run DMC King of Rock” on the gallery walls.
Ultimately, the video is a form of resistance: the group actively comment on the long-standing fight of black artists to be recognized in ‘Rock n’ Roll’. A challenge to the genre’s lack of access, dominance of white artists and white-centric narratives, this was an issue that the group faced throughout their career. This is especially apparent with the constant presence of the security guard in every shot who acts like a gate keeper to culture and monitors the group’s activity in the museum.
Taking cues from Streisand and Run-D.M.C., The Carters (Jay Z and Beyoncé) deliver the best balance between critiquing and celebrating museums in their 2018 music video, Apeshit. Like Streisand, The Carters engaged with the museum as their own place to play and be inspired: female dancers lift and rise on the steps of Winged Victory of Samothrace whilst two more recreate their own version of David’s Madame Récamier. The sculptured texture of Beyoncé’s Stephane Rolland gown echoes the carefully carved drapery of the Winged Victory. At one point, the video captures an all-out dance-out in front of The Great Sphinx of Tanis.
Like Run-D.M.C. however, the film further critiques the dominance of white and lack of black narratives in museums. It’s well documented that this video is significant for putting black bodies into the historically white space of museums. They call out the whiteness of the Louvre by having black dancers dance in flesh colored tights in front of Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon. More importantly towards the end of the video they prominently feature Portrait D’Une Négresse, which scholar James Smalls calls an “anomaly because it presents a black person as the sole aestheticized subject and object of a work of art.” Perhaps most poignantly though, black subjects are also featured ‘behind the scene’. Shooting a group of almost totally obscured black men in front of metal drawers, the black subject is reintegrated into both the public and private spaces of the museum.
Overall these musicians provide a complex understanding about how people should respond to art historical institutions but nevertheless encourage all visitors to be active participants instead of passive spectators in the museum space.