It's hard to overestimate the effect Motown's had on contemporary music. It's best to experience it. Now through early 2020, the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin is hosting “Motown: The Sound of Young America,” curated by the Grammy Museum, which explores the cultural and historical impact of the musical movement.
A presidential library may seem a surprising location for a musical retrospective, but it's not the first time LBJ Library has hosted an exhibition like "Motown." In 2015, the library worked with the Grammy Museum to bring "Ladies and Gentlemen... The Beatles!" to Austin and reached out again for another opportunity to work with the organization.
"The LBJ Presidential Library isn’t just about the life and presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson. It’s also about the life and times of Americans during his administration," LBJ Library's museum exhibits specialist Nikki Diller tells CultureMap. "And so Motown was a huge, huge, huge cultural event, and its heyday was in the 1960s, and that’s our era, so this is the perfect place for a Motown exhibit. It makes a lot of sense."
This is the first time "Motown" has ever been anywhere, Diller adds.
Visitors get their first introduction to Motown upon walking into the retrospective, where they're greeted by A Dare to Dream, a mural artist Chris Rogers completed in just nine days. The piece depicts many of Motown's biggest acts (The Supremes, Four Tops, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5, etc.) as well as major influences on the industry, such as Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and B.B. King.
Just around the corner, the story of Motown begins, first examining why Detroit launched the phenomenon, and paying tribute to some of those influencers introduced on the mural. Each room is packed with history and gives visitors the opportunity to get up close and personal with items tied to some iconic moments in music.
Personal items are also on display, including a fur that belonged to Holiday, as well as a wig and gown that Fitzgerald performed in and her 1959 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Performer, Soloist. And in the same room, Smokey Robinson explains in a recent video the origins of Motown and his connections to some other huge talents from that time.
"Motown was not necessarily known to be overly involved in the Civil Rights Movement as a company, but a lot of the Motown artists were very active," Diller says. "Smokey Robinson talks about how traveling around, especially in the South and performing in the South, often there was segregated seating … and that Smokey Robinson specifically said no, I’m not going to perform unless the seating is integrated. So I think Motown artists played an important role during that time period by traveling around, by integrating music venues, and crossing over."
Other videos feature singers and songwriters offering exclusive insights into some of Motown's biggest moments and hits, including the stories behind "Money (That's What I Want)" by Barrett Strong and "Dancing in the Street" by Martha and the Vandellas.
After all, what is Motown without dancing? Visitors can bust a move learning how to do The Temptations walk, or take part in other interactive activities, like singing karaoke to the tune of "Stop! In the Name of Love" by The Supremes, keeping the beat going to "My Girl" by The Temptations, and helping write a Motown song.
Iconic costumes (so many costumes!) were also curated for the show, including famous threads from The Supremes, The Temptations, The Jackson 5, and many more.
Flashy threads and memorable songs may capture imaginations, but Diller hopes visitors ultimately take away the important cultural impact Motown had on American history.
"For the first time, you had black musicians who were crossing over into the white charts, and having No. 1 hits. Motown made a lot of inroads that maybe aren’t always as obvious," she says.
See "Motown" daily from 9 am to 5 pm now until January 26, 2020. The library is closed only three days out of the year: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.
Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors (62 and older), $5 for former military, $3 for youth (13-18), and $3 for college students. Admission is free for children 12 and younger, active-duty military personnel, and members of select groups. Check the library's site for more details.