Despite its long-held association with Renaissance Old Masters, classical sculpture and other more traditional art forms, the Metropolitan Museum of Art actually boasts a collection of some 5,000 historical musical instruments, including the world’s oldest surviving piano, a Ming Dynasty pipa (four-string plucked lute) and a 450-year-old Venetian spinetta.
But a new exhibition opening April 8 at the New York City institution shifts the focus to a more contemporary style of music—specifically, rock and roll, as exemplified by more than 130 iconic instruments played by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Prince, Joan Jett and Joni Mitchell.
Titled "Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll," the show explores the genre’s evolution from 1939 to 2017, drawing on guitars, drum kits, keyboards and horns, as well as vintage posters, costumes and concert clips, to convey what Met Director Max Hollein describes as “the innovation, experimentation, passion, and rebellion at the heart of rock and roll.”
Staged thematically, the display moves from musicians’ embrace of burgeoning rock technologies to the creation of “Guitar Gods,” instruments’ roles in shaping artists’ visual identity, and characteristically dramatic exploits such as the destruction of instruments during live performances. (Artnet News’ Taylor Dafoe mentions a fragment of a guitar Jimi Hendrix sacrificially burned at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, while Rolling Stone’s Ilana Kaplan references a sculpture made from the remains of guitars smashed by Pete Townshend of the Who.)
According to CBS News’ Anthony Mason, other exhibition highlights include a Gibson double-necked guitar strummed by the Eagles’ Don Felder during renditions of “Hotel California,” John Lennon’s 12-string Rickenbacker, Ringo Starr’s original Ludwig drum set, a guitar played by Chuck Berry during the recording of ‘50s hit “Johnny B. Goode,” and a white Stratocaster used by Hendrix during at Woodstock in 1969.
“Each one—marred with cigarette burns, destroyed through punk ritualism, or covered in thin films of sweat, sticker residue, and Keith Richard’s vomit—tells a story,” Dafoe writes for artnet News.
The list of musicians represented in "Play It Loud" reads like a Who’s Who of rock and roll. As Billboard’s Hilary Hughes explains, the “bricklayers of rock’s foundation,” from Buddy Holly to Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Wanda Jackson, receive nods, as do later rock giants including the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Page.
Crucially, Sarah Rose Sharp noted for Hyperallergic in November 2018, the Met’s initial exhibition announcement attracted ire for listing just one female musician: St. Vincent. Luckily, Hughes observes, the actual show is far more inclusive than the starting list led critics to believe. In addition to St. Vincent, "Play It Loud" features artists such as Joan Jett, Sheryl Crow, Patti Smith, Tina Weymouth and even Lady Gaga, whose custom-made electronic piano, used during a 2014 performance on "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon," makes an appearance.
The gender imbalance still apparent in the exhibition, however, is symbolic of the situation in the larger music world.
“Rock and roll was for many years a boys’ club,” curators Jayson Kerr Dobney and Craig J. Inciardi write in the show's catalog. “In the 1950s and 1960s, and even beyond, the women in rock and roll bands were primarily limited to vocals.”
It’s worth noting that the insular art world more typically associated with the Met and similarly high-brow cultural institutions is just as much of a boys’ club: As a landmark study recently published in PLoS One found, the overwhelming majority of works held by major museums across the United States are by white men. According to artnet News’ Eileen Kinsella, the researchers reported that the Met, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston had a particularly low proportion of works by female artists—in total, fewer than eight percent of these museums’ holdings are by women.
"Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll" is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from April 8 through October 1, 2019.