Thursday, 28 February 2013

'Entrepreneur Museums' and the preservation of Icelandic music heritage

Over the last few days I’ve been re-reading interview transcripts from the fieldwork I did in Iceland in 2010 and 2011 as I try and finalise a chapter on the working conditions of Icelandic musicians following the financial crash of 2008. The interviews I conducted in Reykjavik covered a lot of territory and I spoke to people from across the music sector. While the chapter I’m writing is completely unrelated to this current project on DIY archives, revisiting the interviews I did with people interested in Icelandic music heritage reminded me of an interesting conversation I had with one of my interviewees about the current status of popular music preservation in that country.

The gist of the conversation was that popular music heritage in Iceland is in the hands of ‘enthusiasts’ rather than ‘professionals’. The lack of professionalisation was said to be partly because there is no tradition of museum or curatorial studies in the country’s universities. In Iceland, "enthusiastic people with the guts to begin something, to build something, can get pretty far". What to call these places? “Entrepreneur museums” (interview, 15 September 2010).

For this interviewee, an example of such a place is TónlistarsafnÍslands, a music history museum in Kopavogur, a town just outside Reykjavik. I had an opportunity to visit the museum in 2010, and returned to the museum for a second time in 2011. Since opening in 2009, Tónlistarsafn Íslands has held special exhibitions focusing on everything from Iceland’s punk scene to its classical composers. One impetus behind the establishment of the museum was that, as the founder explained to me, "all the museums in Iceland are very handicapped concerning sound" (11 October 2011). Like other DIY archives and museums in my research, Tónlistarsafn Íslands is under-funded and faces challenges linked to exhibition and storage space and around the amount of work that needs to be undertaken with limited staff. I write about some of the heritage practices and processes of Tónlistarsafn Íslands in two forthcoming publications (see project library below).

For my interviewee, the long-term survival of "entrepreneur museums" will depend on them "uniting with a stronger entity", such as a University (as I saw in February this year when visiting the Nederlands Jazz Archief), and having a strong program of public accessibility (Interview, 15 September 2010).


Another examnple would be Rokkheimur Rúnars Júlíussonar (in English, The Rock World of Rúnars Júlíusson), a place I have not yet had an opportunity to visit. This small museum, dedicated to the life and music of a much-loved Icelandic musician, is located in an extension to the house in which he once lived. The museum is open by appointment and run by the musician’s family. Another of my interviewees, described how "private people" opening up their "private collection" often don’t forsee how much work such an undertaking will involve: "it’s not very easy to make it all happen, even though it’s a beautiful dream to be doing this" (interview, 10 October 2011). It troubles this interviewee that items in such collections are not being cared for to museum preservation standards. What this potentially means is that by the time the collection of an “entreprenuer museum” is “united with a stronger entity” like a university or national instition (to use the words of the previous interviewee), the archival material may be in very poor shape – “it might not actually be there anymore” due to deterioration. This interviewee stressed that “it’s wonderful’ that the collection of this important musician is being made available to the public but at the same time is concerned to see some materials in the collection being unwittingly “destroyed” because of poor handling, storage and/or display conditions (interview, 10 October 2011).


Whatever we call these places – “entrepreneur museums”, DIY/community/grassroots - they do have a role to play in the management of Iceland’s popular music heritage at a time when popular music’s material history remains largely absent from the collecting impulses of the country’s ‘professional’ museums and archives. Despite the concerns some of my interviewees had about the lack of professionalism and standards of preservation in these DIY institutions, places like Tónlistarsafn Íslands and Rokkheimur Rúnars Júlíussonar are important for a whole range of reasons. For starters, what gets collected in these places emerges from the vernacular knowledge of enthusiasts who are embedded in communities of consumption and these collections are held in close proximity to the people for whom the artefacts are (or are narrativised as being) most valued.


What makes an insitution the ‘real home’ of a music culture’s material history? Is it professionalism and industry standard preservation? Or are other factors more, or at least equally, important? Can these places offer experiences (to visitors, to staff) that aren’t available in professional museums and archives? Is it enough for these places, in the short term, to provide a space to keep items that might otherwise be discarded as rubbish? For preservation to come later, when professional institutions finally have an interest in this material or for a time when the DIY museum or archive gets enough funding to begin preservation work in earnest?

I don’t yet know the answers to all these questions, but the interviews I have conducted with DIY practioners to-date suggest that these enthusiasts are dedicated to doing what they can to collect and, wherever possible, preserve a comprehensive record of popular music’s past. They are worried that formal instutions of cultural heritage management are not taking popular music seriously. They are anxious that this material will be lost to the trash heap and subsequently forgotten if enthusiasts don’t act now and make dedicated spaces for the materialised cultural memory of popular music. And they therefore do what they can to keep these places operational in spite of difficulties with finding funding, appropriate premises for conservation, and enough people to help out with archival tasks.

I hope I can return to Iceland as part of this project to investigate its music heritage landscape further.