11 Points

11 Ways I'd Fix (and Save) the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
written by Sam Greenspan

I first went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum when I was in high school. They were throwing some banquet there for nerds from different area schools and I snagged the invite to this one.

That was 1996, one year after the Hall opened. I distinctly remember my thoughts back then: "Meh. It's like a really big Hard Rock Cafe."

This week, while visiting my parents back here in Cleveland, I returned to the Hall for the first time in 14 years. My thoughts now: "They've had a decade and a half to improve this place and it's still like a really big Hard Rock Cafe. Only less crowded."

I don't think this list topic is particularly commercial... nor do I think this list will even crack my top 200 most viewed. But it's something I need to write for three reasons. One: On the outside chance that someone from the Hall reads this, takes it to heart, and saves the place and helps the city. Two: I need a cathartic outlet after going to that place with optimism in my heart. And three: They charge a jaw-dropping $22 for admission. I need to make a list about it so I can write that insanity off.

Here are 11 steps that need to be taken to fix (and, quite possibly, save) Cleveland's beloved Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Because, quite frankly, it sucks worse than the Shitty Beatles. (Which isn't just a clever name.)

  1. To date, they haven't banned photos of the outside of the Hall.
    Allow people to take photos. Normally, when I write a travel list -- like my 11 Points on the Jack Daniels distillery or Fenway or Wrigley -- every point is accompanied by a photo I took. That is not the case here. The Hall does not allow photos.

    And they MEAN it. You have to check your camera at their coat check. There are signs every few feet reminding you. And I even passed a SNIPER as we went on the top floor... literally, an employee who stands there, from on high, radioing down to the guards below when he spots someone taking a photo.

    They say this is because many of the artists (or their estates) agreed to donate their stuff under the condition that it not be photographed. That may be sporadically true, but seems suspect to me. My most cynical side says they don't want a ton of photos out there because, once people actually see the crapiness within for free, it will discourage anyone from actually coming to the Hall.

    Fortunately, with the rest of my plan items below, the Hall would become so much more of a multimedia experience that a photo of John Lennon' Sgt. Pepper's jacket could hit the Internet and not push the Hall into the red for a quarter.

    Let people take photos of their trip to the museum. They're paying $22 and seeing stuff they want to remember. And if the photos are of cool enough stuff, it might even... wait for it... make people want to actually travel to Cleveland to see the Hall.

  2. Don't cluster everything on the ground floor. So you enter the museum, head to the ground floor, and go into the main display area. You walk around for at least an hour, seeing memorabilia and such, and say to yourself, "Wow! This was just one floor! I can't wait to see the rest of the museum." Then you leave the ground floor and find... virtually nothing. A few random cases of more of the same memorabilia, a few exhibits that may or may not interest you... and that's about it.

    For some reason, the Hall decided to put 99 percent of the museum in one huge room on the ground floor. It was like that in 1996, and it's like that today.

    It's kind of like someone who decided to watch "The O.C." on DVD. You get about halfway through the first season and you think, "This show is amazing! There's a fight at a rich people's party every episode. Not to mention so many sexy results." Then, eventually, you find yourself halfway through the third season realizing the show used up everything it had in the first season and is now just presenting a meager shell of itself. That's a completely terrible metaphor for the basement of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

    Having everything on one floor creates all sorts of problems. One: Congestion. Everyone's in the main room. Two: It renders the rest of the museum useless. And three: It makes this giant building feel like an enormous waste of space.

    So, here's what I propose: Split it up and use the full museum. Divide the main room into smaller rooms and take us on a tour through the history of rock and roll through those rooms.

    You know how an art museum has an ancient Egyptian room, a Renaissance room, an Impressionism room and on and on until finally you're in a modern art room where the pièce de résistance is like a giant jar of fish heads with a Ziggy cartoon taped to it? Do that. Give us a Motown room, a '60s San Francisco room, a grunge room, a Beatles room, an Elvis room. Start with the roots of rock in the basement, then take us all the way up through today by the fifth floor. And when we get there, have it lead right into the Hall of Fame itself.

  3. A photo I found online that someone illegally took of some Michael Jackson outfits.
    Break the displays up by performer. Right now the displays are by era -- everyone from one era stuffed into one or two cases. It's OK, but it leaves them so incredibly jammed that you can't possibly examine everything. It really doesn't have the (I think) intended effect of making you see how these acts all contributed to these major musical epochs -- it just looks like a glass-encased thrift store.

    By breaking off each individual singer or group, you could immerse yourself in that band's music, that band's gear, that band's contribution. And when you're done with all of the acts in that era's room, you'll be able to understand how they all contributed to the era.

    And, at the very least, it'll prevent everyone from playing the "Who wore that, David Bowie or Pat Benetar?" game.

  4. Add music. This might be the most egregious error of all. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is so focused on showing us (and writing huge placards describing) musicians' stuff that it forgets that it's a museum devoted to a different one of the five senses. If I was in a band with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, I'd have to sit it down, roll some marijuana like a cigarette, and have a conversation with it about how "You've forgotten why we got into this, man: For the music."

    Sure, there's music here and there. There are about 10 listening stations where you can listen to the 500 most influential rock songs ever. That was cool in 1996. It's irrelevant in the Pandora/iTunes/BitTorrent era.

    Let's put it this way: The song I was singing as we left the museum was... "Right Here (Human Nature)" by SWV. Because my girlfriend and I had been joking about that song on the trip downtown to the museum. In the entire four hours we were at the museum, I didn't hear anything that stuck in my head well enough to usurp SWV. Who, believe it or not, are NOT represented in the Hall.

    My proposal: Now that I've broken up the museum into separate rooms for separate eras, actually play the music from that era in those rooms. If you're afraid that playing loud music is going to scare off the 55-and-over white people (more on the corporatizaion of the Hall to come in this list, by the way), then give everyone an optional mp3 player when they enter, that will play music corresponding to each display they look at.

  5. Expand the music history. Kiss is famously not represented in the museum... they're mad they haven't been inducted into the Hall of Fame, so they refuse to give up any memorabilia. The ridiculousness of all that aside, I did feel that the museum went really light on a lot of eras and bands.

    I walked the entire Hall and there wasn't a single mention of Ratt.
    The '80s are basically boiled down to Michael Jackson and Madonna. There's no mention of arena rock, so bands from Journey to Bon Jovi to (inductees) Van Halen just don't exist. Same goes for hair bands. Country gets incredibly slighted. The punk display just scratches the surface. Hip-hop gets a small token case, as does grunge. Modern indie rock is unmentioned.

    Those are just a few examples but, all in all, I didn't feel like I got the full picture. But space is limited on the ground floor. Expand out, and overwhelm me with everything there is to see. Make it feel like I can't see it all in one day. And, yes, I know the Sammy Hagar era was awful, but at least give us a photo of the Eddie Van Halen holding a Crystal Pepsi.

  6. Get more significant memorabilia. Right now, the only thing the Hall has going for it is its memorabilia collection. Some of which is really great stuff. The aforementioned Lennon Sgt. Pepper's suit is stunning. Things like Michael Jackson's sparkled glove and Thriller costume, the notebook that shows Billy Joel working through the "We Didn't Start the Fire" lyrics, an Elvis purple Cadillac... these are things you talk about.

    But most of it is really just "whatever." It's Hard Rock Cafe stuff. For the Notorious B.I.G., in his case they have a few 45s of other artists that he used to own. They have miscellaneous telegrams about nothing from the Rolling Stones. They have a random jacket that a random Four Top wore during a random concert. Kind of cool, but nothing major.

    There are iconic pieces of music memorabilia out there. Things that you'd talk to a friend about. "How was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame." "It was incredible, they had ______." That _____ has to be a "wow" item. Whether it's Madonna's cone-shaped bra, Prince's symbol guitar, Peter Frampton's inflatable pig, a bullet that was removed from 50 Cent, the black box from the Valens/Holly/Bopper plane, or Courtney Love's first vagina -- they have to aim higher. It's the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It should be able to get the best of the best.

  7. Jam in less information. As we walked through the Hall, I found a strange feeling of being both underwhelmed and overwhelmed. Underwhelmed by the selection... overwhelmed by the amount of information they were packing in.

    For some reason, every piece of memorabilia had a giant description accompanying it. "Here's Verdine White's hotel key from Earth, Wind and Fire's 1974 tour. Now here are 15 paragraphs about the group, the tour, the hotel, the hotel industry, why 'water' was excluded from the band's name, and other people in history named Verdine."

    I'm an information sponge and a trivia nerd. But I found myself ignoring the thousands and thousands of huge chunks of text -- which, to make it even worse, were each written as one giant paragraph in a dark gray font set on a light gray background. If I'm not reading these things, no one is.

    For my revamp, all these have to go. They have to take the art museum model for everything -- one paragraph with the basic facts about the piece and an anecdote.

  8. One example of a signature from the Hall of Fame.
    Do more with the Hall of Fame itself. Everything I've described so far is from the museum portion. That's because the Hall of Fame itself is comically meager (and has been for 14 years).

    The Hall of Fame itself is just a hallway with black walls featuring glowing signatures from the inductees. It's accompanied by a film of all the inductees, but that film lasts over an hour (like every other multimedia presentation in the building, you watch it on their schedule, with no interactivity).

    Once again, it at least warrants some kind of music being played to accompany it. Or a photo. Or anything.

  9. Make the exhibits feel unique. The non-ground floors of the Hall feature rotating exhibits. We went into the Bruce Springsteen one and it was... the same stuff. Jammed in, so-so memorabilia accompanied by descriptions that seemed to be written by Tolstoy (or J.K. Rowling from her fourth Harry Potter book on). For all we know, they just took their Springsteen stuff from the ground floor and moved it upstairs.

    There needs to be something more to the exhibits. They need to feel different from the rest of the museum, feel special. This could be a good place to do something interactive, something new. Recreate a stage with replicas from the band and let people take a picture. Take a green screen photo of us and use that to recreate the artist's album cover. Watch videos, see interviews, whatever. Anything but more of the same.

    Again, what we're aiming for is simple: Memorable, unique, destination-type exhibits. Things a fan of the artist or band would travel to see because they couldn't imagine missing it.

  10. Strike a better balance between family friendly and reality. The Hall aims to be an appropriate-for-all-ages experience... which, inevitably, strips all the sex, drugs and (in many cases) rebellion out of the story. Yes, it covers those things when it has to -- in the hippie section there are some old books on LSD, for example -- but, on the whole, it just feels so, so corporately sanitized.

    The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame isn't very "rock and roll." It's just a big, fancy building with a lot of stuff in it.

    I'm not saying that stripping out the family-friendly stuff is bad. I understand that museums thrive on families coming in. But at least do something to acknowledge the vices and bad behavior that are unbreakably linked to the music.

    It doesn't need to be George Michael's crack pipe or a Mick Jagger's Valtrex prescription or Pete Townshend's hard drive. But the vibe needs to be, at least, a little bit edgier. What about an 18-and-over section? Or just adding more truth to the write-ups, just presented matter-of-factly as history and not sensationalism? Or, at the very least, lowering ticket prices so this doesn't feel like Woodstock '99?

  11. Get better food. If you don't make any other changes, thereby continuing to be pejoratively compared to a Hard Rock Cafe... at least get some food that compares to theirs. (We didn't eat anything, but they had what you'd expect: Way overpriced, crappy food. Which didn't even have rock-related pun names. If I'm going to go there and spend $14 to eat some mediocre crap, at least make sure I'm getting a Three Hot Dog Night or Funky Chicken Tenders or the Def Leppard Rotisserie Combo (a full chicken, but only one drumstick).

This post was originally published on Friday, April 2, 2010 at 12:00:00 PM under the category Travel.

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