Located at 191 Beale Street, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum actually began as a research project of the Smithsonian Institution. Situated within the FedExForum sports and entertainment complex, the purpose of this museum, according to its website, is to share “the story of musical pioneers who, for the love of music, overcame racial and socio-economic barriers to create the music that shook the entire world.”
Conceived by the Smithsonian, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum was developed by the National Museum of American History initially as an exhibit. This was the not only the first exhibition to have been created by the Institution in partnership with another museum, but it was also the first exhibit outside its home, Washington, D.C., and New York, a cosmopolitan center of culture. The collaboration was in tribute to the 150th anniversary of the world-renown Smithsonian Institution.
After agreeing to jointly work on this project, in 1990, the National Museum of American History ultimately designed a traveling exhibition of American music that was rooted in the Delta region, significantly in Memphis. Entitled, Rock ‘n’ Soul: Social Crossroads, the sounds that were researched and presented included call-and-response of both labor and gospel music, the blues and country music of the first-half of the 20th century merged with the more modern music of Memphis. The contemporary modes of jazz, urban blues, R&B, soul, rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly were influenced by both area, i.e. Beale Street, and recording labels, including Sun Studio and Stax Records. Also included for this special exhibit was material on the Civil Rights Movement, as watershed moments, including the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., occurred in Memphis.
Overcoming the difficulties of funding, a collective of Memphians actively worked to secure authentic artifacts and ephemera essential to the creation of this groundbreaking exhibit.
Opening in 1996, the Rock ‘n’ Soul: Social Crossroads exhibition, as per the statement of the Smithsonian Institution, is “the story of the body of music that had the most influence on the culture and lifestyles of the world from the middle of the 20th century until today. It has affected the way we walk, the way we talk, the way we comb our hair, and the way we dress – not only in Memphis but in the entire world.” After traveling the country, steps were taken to convert this exhibition into a permanent museum.
In 2000, the museum initially was housed in the Gibson Building, which previously served as the Gibson Guitar Factory. Four years later, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum opened in the FedExForum, home of NBA team, the Memphis Grizzlies and the city’s premier venue for sports and entertainment.
Providing an inclusive experience representative of the unique music culture of Memphis, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum has been visited by millions of visitors from around the world. These visitors include school students who become engaged via the museum’s education department and outreach programs. Themes involved in their learning include how the music of Memphis and social changes within the United States mutually influenced each other.
Guests to this site are primarily led by digital audio tour guide, at their own pace. The audio tour guide contains more than 5 hours of content from which to select! According to the museum’s website, guests will be transported “from rural field hollers and sharecroppers of the 1930s, through the explosion of Sun, Stax and Hi Records, inside Memphis’ musical heyday in the ‘70s, to its global musical influence.” Visiting any of the seven galleries, they can experience various spaces that contain everything from musical instruments and sheet music to costumes and awards.
The Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and its gift shop are presently open, 10am to 7pm, Wednesday through Sunday. There is a fee for adults and children, but discounts are available to groups and schools; members of the U.S. military and various organizations, including AAA and AARP. Additionally, as an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, its own members are afforded discounts to this music museum. Ranked #17 on “128 Things to Do in Memphis” by Tripadvisor, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum is sure to please all who visit!