The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is infested.
It teems with spiky-haired, tight T-shirt wearing teens, all of whom are glued to their cell phones. The kids fall in line, trickling through doors behind tour guides or nipping at the heels of their excitable parents while they try to beat their Angry Birds high score.
“Yes! Oh my god, do you remember this?” says a curly-haired, aging woman bedecked in a T-shirt that reads: Cleveland: There’s No Mistake About Us
. She points a plump finger at a plain gray suit behind glass. The man we assume is her husband gives a small chuckle and steps to the right to let the boy we assume is their son step up to the glass case. The woman sighs, eyes aglow, uttering, “My mother was absolutely in love with this man.”
The slouched college-aged boy visibly rolls his eyes while he taps on his smartphone, not even glancing at Buddy Holly’s suit. Offended by her child’s disinterest, the woman begins the cliched “(Insert classic rock band here) is ten times better than (insert modern rock band here)” argument with her kid. And they aren’t the only family here having that argument.
Looking around, the crowd is split 50-50 by age; at least half of the crowd (and it is crowded) in the museum is under 25, while the other half is older. However, when counting the number of people on their phones, taking selfies, pacing through hallways of artifacts without so much as glancing at them, the ratio shifts. Nearly all of the people actually engaged in the museum’s exhibits are at least 40, while their younger counterparts tap their feet at the end of the hallway.
Par for the course in this digital age, we wonder?
A reasonable assumption to make would be these younger kids just aren’t interested in music the way their parents are, and that the Rock Hall is just like any other musty museum guardians drag children to. But anyone who made that assumption would be wrong. In fact, most of the high school- to college-aged kids in the room are all literally wearing their support for the music industry on their sleeves. I spotted eight Misfits tees alone.
“If anything kids are more into music than we were,” Mark Check, vice president of technology at the Hall, says. He’s middle-aged for anyone wondering. “They have access to so much more, and they pick everything up so much more quickly.” His daughter, 13, listens to One Direction and buries her face in her phone.
Back at the exhibits, a boy, around 19, sits by himself on a bench in the main lobby, a black Muse tee clinging to his back. His jeans are tight and ripped. Same can be said for the Converse on his feet. He’s exactly the kind of person you’d expect to be drooling over Slash’s leather jacket or the Talking Heads’ stage outfits. Instead, the only view he’s getting is of his iPhone’s screen, and if he looked up, a blank white wall.
The Rock Hall is infested, its belly filled with vibrating pieces of glass and plastic.
“I’ve walked through the Hall and watched how people interact with exhibits,” Check says. “The funniest thing is, and you only see younger people do this, they try to touch the screens.” The screens in question being television monitors stationed in most rooms, screening music videos, interviews or the Spotify playlists set up for each exhibit. “They try to swipe left or right to change the video or tap it to see if it’ll pause.” (It won't.)
Check was brought into the Hall a month or so ago to bring the museum into the digital age and feed the infestation, a large reason for that being so that it can better hold the attention of younger audiences.
“A big mentality for a long time was that we were battling with cell phones. Museums try to figure out ways to get people to put them down,” Check says, sitting in his office lined with Pop! Vinyl figures and rainbow party lights. “That’s not the right mentality. We have to work with them, include them in the experience.”
Check talks about his strategy for moving forward with the Hall. He talks about his plans for updating the museum’s website, which is currently a stagnant, simpleton of a thing that’s informative but doesn’t keep the attention of a casual browser. He talks about the aforementioned Spotify playlists and the hope to incorporate actual touch screens for more exhibits in the future.
“We have tons of media I’m sorting through. I’m talking terabytes upon terabytes of video. And a lot of it is exclusive to the Hall. You know, you can’t see it anywhere but here,” he says. “I want to make more of it available, put it up on the website. I want to develop an app for the museum so that we can incorporate what people are already naturally doing into their experiences.
“They’re already on their phones. They Google something while they’re standing at an exhibit. They’re posting things to Facebook, Instagram. They see an outfit worn in a music video, and they’re looking up the video it was worn in,” Check says of young visitors. “I want to incorporate that into the Rock Hall experience.”
It’s a brave idea, taking the habits of visitors and encouraging them in the museum, allowing visitors to access the media they see at the museum wherever they go. Of course, having an app or a site that offers streaming at no cost is risky; it eliminates a need to pay for access to the physical museum to see the content displayed there. Plus, even with incorporated technology, kids may still be turned off to exploring the museum’s exhibits beyond the artists they’re already familiar with.
“It’s still social to go to the museum. That’s the aspect we’ll never lose, that phones and computers can’t offer.” Check says. “We’re still a destination to bring your family or a date.” As far as pushing visitors beyond the music they already know, Check says, “We’re not doing a great job of that at the moment.”
Though it may not be as successful as Check suggests, there’s a strategy already in place to guide guests.
“Bringing them beyond the bands they already follow is what we try to do with the Right Here, Right Now
exhibit,” says Karen Herman, vice president of curatorial affairs at the Hall. The exhibit mentioned holds primarily clothing worn by modern pop artists on stage or in videos. There are Fall Out Boy’s “Save Rock and Roll” outfits and Janelle Monae’s trademark oxfords. Along the sides of each glass case is a description of the items and a list of the artist’s influences. “We’re hoping to bring guests beyond that exhibit. A young person sees Bruno Mars’ clothes and then sees he’s influenced by Elvis. Next, he’s heading over to the Elvis exhibit.”
Though clever, the presumption that passing visitors are going to read the fine print next to a case might be a leap, especially if those visitors can’t be bothered to look up from a screen. That’s where Check’s strategy comes into play: An app can guide visitors with a notification or pulsing checkpoints on a map, though something like that, Check says, may take anywhere from two to five years to fully develop. In the meantime, Herman says the Rock Hall is drawing crowds with fresh exhibits and events, like the Alternative Press exhibit debuting this month.
The Sonic Session series set at the museum each month planned by production manager Lisa Vinciquerra also aims to draw in younger audiences.
“It’s a really fun way to get people excited about the Rock Hall,” Vinciquerra says of her project, hosted on the first floor of the museum. “We get a lot of diverse sounds that come through; we had an EDM show not too long ago. We had Elle King recently.”
Vincequerra says the venture so far has been a success, filling the Hall with younger audiences and luring them into the museum once the concert ends. It’s the smartest strategy currently implemented. Tickets for the sessions are $5.50, cheap enough for broke college kids to attend. The venue’s intimate — the stage is about two feet high — offering a personal experience for passionate young fans. And if anything’s going to pull eyes from a smartphone screen, it’s going to be the stretched strings of an electric guitar and the sweat dripping off the chin of a dancing heartthrob.
Entitled “Never Give Up: Alternative Press at 30,” the new AP exhibit will debut on July 22. The next Sonic Session will be July 21’s New Politics concert and Black Tiger Sex Machine is slated to perform on July 30.