We recently went to the opening of a Grateful Dead exhibition at the New-York Historical Society – a very unusual show for them. As you would expect, the normally staid N-YHS crowd was rockin’ to live music and the vibe was good!
In the gallery everyone was animated, swapping stories, looking closely at the concert posters, tee shirts, album covers, memorabilia and at the amazing, lovingly designed envelopes and letters sent by fans requesting tickets to concerts or just expressing their love. It’s a small exhibition but you could spend a very happy hour there.
The New-York Historical Society is on to something with this exhibition. The Grateful Dead were a part of New York City’s history, having played the Fillmore East at least 12 times between 1967 and 1970, not to mention Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park and other venues many times during the 28 years before Gerry Garcia passed on.
Three things occurred to me as I was walking around.
One: why couldn’t N-YHS do a series of exhibitions on the history and impact of the music scenes in our fair city? New York has always been a place where reputations were made, and where music has deeply influenced the culture. Think about the East Village in the 1970s and ’80s; or Harlem and the jazz clubs in mid-town in the ’40s and ’50s. It’s probably been that way since there were enough people living here to be an audience, all the way back to the 17th century.
With a series of exhibitions about the history of music in NYC, new audiences of avid music fans would discover N-YHS. They’d be fascinated to see the music they loved and their own lives as part of a larger social history. This would probably change their perception of what History is, and make it feel personally relevant. They might even become members!
Two: this content really inspires visitors to share memories and comments. N-YHS could collect these stories to share with other visitors on their website, and on social media sites. It would be a wonderful way to help give N-YHS a fresh look.
Three: the Grateful Dead were really early adopters, probably pioneers, in the social media sphere in the way they embraced their fans’ entrepreneurial activity. Instead of outlawing fans who taped their concerts, they created special areas where tapers could stand and record the music. When fans began designing their own Dead t-shirts and other gear, instead of hauling them off the streets for illegally using the brand, they encouraged them to submit their designs and helped promote the best stuff. The Grateful Dead were way ahead of the curve in so many ways!