A museum is a charged space that contains objects, tells histories and stories, and can function as a public service. But how should people respond to museums? For decades musicians have taken over museums (or in some cases made their own museum) to answer this question in critical and celebratory ways.
One of the most significant examples of this is Barbra Streisand’s 1966 television special Color Me Barbra. In the special Streisand belts out tracks from her album, Color Me Barbra, in the galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Surrounded by sculptures, tapestries, and paintings, Streisand makes the museum her personal playground. In the number “Yesterdays,” Streisand comes off as a curious visitor touching artworks and looking for the perfect painting to inspire her. In the number “Gotta Move,” Streisand struts and dances in a bright-colored geometric print dress that is reminiscent of the cubist works on the gallery walls.
Streisand chose to shoot at the PMoA because she found the art there, “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 her playful approach to art, Streisand makes the museum her own by upholding the idea that museums are a place for people to see themselves and make themselves into living works of art.
Almost twenty years later Run-D.M.C. had a different take on museums for their “King of Rock” music video in 1985. In a fictional Rock n Roll museum (that 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 in the museum because “[it] is a rock museum.” Dressed in black leather suits, black fedoras, and crisp white Adidas, Run-D.M.C.’s presence of black militancy, jazz fashion, and street style incite recognition in a place that denies them the right to exist.
In the museum, they engage with a variety of “cultural artifacts” including guitars, four white busts that wear Beatles wigs, and videos of rock greats. They mock a Buddy Holly performance, respectfully turn their heads to the viewer during a Little Richard performance, and shake their heads at a Jerry Lee Lewis performance. They even step on Michael Jackson’s famous white glove to reject the universally lauded artist who was on the more “acceptable” side of black popular music during the eighties. By the end of the video, they break artifacts, knock over the black velvet ropes that separate them from Rock culture, and spray paint “Run DMC King of Rock” on the museum wall.
The group’s actions represent the long-standing frustrations that black musicians have with being unable to engage with Rock music. Black musicians such as Little Richard played an integral role in developing Rock n Roll. But black musicians such as Run-D.M.C. were not given the same recognition for continuing Rock music in the same way, white “Rock” musicians were recognized. But more importantly, this idea is underscored through the security guard in the video, who acts as a gatekeeper for rock culture and surveillance’s the group’s presence in the museum.
Taking cues from Streisand and Run-D.M.C., The Carters (Jay Z and Beyoncé) both critique and celebrate museums in their video “Apeshit” (2018). Similar to Streisand, The Carters engage with the museum as a place to play and to be inspired: Dancers lift and rise on the steps leading to the Winged Victory of Samothrace; two women sit in front of David’s Madame Récamier and recreate Récamier; the sculptured texture of Beyoncé’s Stephane Rolland gown echoes the carefully carved drapery of the Winged Victory of Samothrace; and The Carters have an all-out dance-out in front of The Great Sphinx of Tanis.
Similar to Run-D.M.C., they critique the dominance of white narratives in museums and the lack of black bodies presented in museums. It’s well documented that this video calls out the whiteness of the Louvre in several ways: Black dancers dance in flesh-colored spandex in front of Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon, and Portrait D’Une Négresse is prominently featured towards the end of the video. As scholar James Smalls notes, Portrait D’Une Négresse is a significant artwork, “because it presents a black person as the sole aestheticized subject and object of a work of art.” The video even recognizes the presence of black people who work in museums behind the scenes, since it features a group of black men standing in front of draws in a space that wouldn’t be shown to the public. Similar to the security guard in “King of Rock,” these men become cultural gatekeepers for the possible object files that sit behind them.
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.
Color Me Barbra: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8eq5rTX0Jd4
“King of Rock”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXzWlPL_TKw