Museum Without Walls

‘Great Museums’ takes to the streets of New Orleans to reveal that the city is a ‘living museum of music’

Originally printed: Saturday, May 15, 2010

With visits to more than 40 museums stamped on its passport, the public-television series “Great Museums” steps outside for its latest installment.

“New Orleans: A Living Museum of Music,” airing Sunday night at 8 on WYES-Channel 12, practically lives in the street.

Though there are visits to a few traditional museum settings included in the episode, the subject matter doesn’t lend itself to slow panning shots of dusty display cases—not that the classy, clever “Great Museums” otherwise trades in that technique.

New Orleans as a living museum of jazz just can’t be contained by bricks and mortar, or adequately explained by docents and curators.

Congress understood that in 1994 when it established the cloud-like (compared to, say, Yellowstone’s rocks and geysers) New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park.

For visitors here, the audio tour begins as soon as they leave their hotel room.

“We had just finished a one-hour special on the great museums of Havana, Cuba,” said Chesney Doyle, who with her husband Marc serves as co-executive producer of the series. “We looked at a number of museums in Havana, but we also looked at Old Havana City as an outdoor museum of architecture—500 years worth of Colonial architecture.”

Havana reminded Doyle—a Natchez, Miss., native who had once honeymooned here (and whose parents honeymooned here)—of here.

“So there was a precedent for looking beyond the four walls of a museum, but we didn’t have a precedent for looking at an intangible: music,” Doyle said. “We started to think about what a museum is. I’ve always contended that all museums are living museums, in that they don’t exist for the museums themselves—they’re for the people, they contain our experiences as human beings, and they’re created by human beings, and they function as part of a larger community.

“It fits squarely within the mission of ‘Great Museums,’ which is to show people how the world of museums is part of our world, part of our lives.”

The episode does visit a few actual museum addresses, including the Louisiana State Museum, the Hogan Jazz Archives at Tulane University and the Williams Research Center at the Historic New Orleans Collection, but it’s more of a ramble than a typical “Great Museums” episode, starting with a visit to Congo Square.

“These rhythms, this highly syncopated music, was allowed to survive, so we started following that line,” Doyle said. “We gave that more play than we ordinarily give a story, because to me that’s the biggest eureka moment in the whole show.

“We’re always looking for the ‘I didn’t know that!’ moment for our viewers. I don’t think we mention Bourbon Street once. It didn’t occur to me until after we were finished, ‘I didn’t mention Bourbon Street.’

“No one who goes to New Orleans is going to miss Bourbon Street.”

Accordingly, also visited are Derrick Tabb’s Roots of Music program and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Interviews include Michael White, Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, Irvin Mayfield and several Marsalises. Wendell Pierce of HBO’s “Treme” narrates.

The story of Congo Square leads to revelations about the impact of European marching band instrumentation on jazz, then further revelations that ultimately lead to Fats Domino’s levee-failure-flooded piano, on exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum.

“Certainly we wanted to avoid doing a history of music,” Doyle said. “We try to avoid dragging people through a timeline of what happened and when, because they can get that on the Internet.

“Anybody who watches this show, and thinks about that Congo Square story, will have a better understanding of the African-American experience in general.”

-Dave Walker

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