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February 04, 2011

Top 5 Visitor Reactions to the "Up Where We Belong" Exhibition


Greetings and salutations. My name is Zandra Wilson, and I am Dine´. I work in the Education Office of the museum as a Cultural Interpreter.

Part of my job includes interacting with visitors as they make their way through the museum’s exhibitions. The six-month run of Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture made a significant impact on me and inspired me to write this post about my top five visitor reactions.

#5 – Free for all

Just about every day I would walk in and ask if there were any questions. But a lot of the time it would be me experiencing the visitors and the connection they had to the space, and to the music. Just about every day there would be people singing and/or dancing (absolutely no judgment intended). I don’t know what it is about Redbone, but there have been several times where I have seen young children (toddlers) just get down! They would stop what they were doing, hear the song, watch the film, and get in sync with the rhythm and let the music guide them. I’m sure there are parents that have their kids’ puffy Pamper-bottoms recorded on their phones—precious.

#4 – Jimi? Really?

A lot of the comments I received were about Jimi Hendrix’s background. Some visitors have asked why we didn’t have any guitars; some have assumed the reason we have a jacket on display is because the person who made the jacket was Native American. When they read the panels or have conversations with staff, they realize that rather than seeing guitars, it was more iconic, more metaphoric to see the coat of many colors, to see the complexity in Hendrix and in his coat.

#3 – Why is Johnny Cash / Mick Jagger / Ozzy Osbourne / Kris Kristofferson here?  Was that Jimmy Page / The Edge / Jack White?!?

I think this was as effective as the Hendrix coat. People would walk in and see these familiar faces and try to figure out why they are here. They weren’t Native, were they? They are here because they had help or they were influenced by some pretty phenomenal Native people who wrote or created music with them. Peter La Farge, Stevie Salas, Randy Castillo, Link Wray—these names may have been unknown before but not anymore. I never get tired of helping someone discover a musician/ influence/ inspiration.

#2 – Mildred Bailey

There was a multigenerational family of visitors that arrived at the museum and made their way in—the grandfather in a wheelchair, father pushing, and grandson and granddaughter close behind. Each of the kids picked up an audio guide while the grandfather shook his head and declined one. A few minutes later, one of the grandkids returns to the cart and requests another audio device. About thirty minutes later when the family returns the equipment, I ask if they have any questions or comments. The grandfather has a big smile on his face and says, “Mildred Bailey.” As they make their departure toward the elevators, Grandpa is still talking about the Rocking Chair Lady to his grandkids.



#1 – New Fans (Redbone/Link Wray)

I had two incidents where the younger generation found new musicians and songs.

One little girl came with her mother, and they both took an audio guide. They were in the exhibition for a considerable amount of time, but I did manage to see them before I had to leave. The mom was first to turn in her device and say, “My little girl just loves all the music on there, especially one group. . . .” So when the little girls takes off the earphones I ask her if she liked it. Her response was (at the top of her lungs), “I LOVE REDBONE!!!” I tell her, “That’s great!" and add that there was a movie clip of the band playing that song they were listening to.  Her immediate response was, “Where? Mommy let’s see it!” And she runs back into the gallery with her mom not far behind.

The next instance was two young kids who were returning their audio guides, and I asked them how they liked it. They responded with, “Link Wray, he’s our favorite; we played his songs over and over and over and over. . . ”

Up Where We Belong
closed in Washington in January—a bittersweet departure, but we’re happy knowing it will make its way to our sister museum in New York, the George Gustav Heye Center, where the exhibition is scheduled to open in summer 2012. 

—Zandra Wilson (Dine´)


You can explore Native American musicians like Buffy Sainte-Marie and Robbie Robertson here.


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I produced the audio guide and the video and spent a few hours handing out the audio guides in the gallery throughout the run of the exhibition. I had people regularly ask me, "Where's Cher?" but mostly express their appreciation to the museum for putting together the show. The NMAI's Cultural Interpreters and Visitor Services staff are the heart and soul of this museum! Thanks for the post.

I bought the Link Wray CD for my brother for Christmas...he has never heard of him before but he loves to play guitar. He really loved it and he plays if for his son to put him to sleep at night so one day he will grow up to be a rocker like Link!

I have a hard time reading some articles, mostly because they’re dull. You have written an article that I find fascinating and I am glad I read it. I hope you have plans to continue. Greetings,
Joanna, webmaster

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