Bang Your Head: The National Guitar Museum cranks it to 11 at The Exploreum.
Text by Emily Hayes & Photos by Kris Skoda
Recently, we got to chit-chat with Josh Holland, Director of Marketing and Design for the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center. Josh is no stranger to Mod Mobilian. He’s talked us through some great exhibits that have called The Exploreum home:
Currently at The Exploreum is the exhibit “Guitar: The Instrument That Rocked The World”. Photographer Kris Skoda and yours truly took a lengthy tour of this exhibit that will resonate with all fans of music, young and old. Josh helped shed some light on the process of getting and setting up these exhibits as well as some insight on the man who created the traveling exhibit, Mr. Harvey Newquist.
A Talk About with Josh Holland
Old Lady Hayes: Josh! I don’t even know where to begin. Thanks for inviting us out to see the exhibit. I suppose that is the best jumping off point. How did this exhibit even come into existence?
Josh Holland: Harvey is an avid musician and years ago he had a friend visit his home. His friend was taken aback by the amount of guitars Harvey owned and had on display and said that it looked like a museum. Something about that stuck with Harvey and he began researching and found out that nowhere in the world is there a dedicated museum to just guitars. Some manufacturers have mini-museums of their own to showcase their own brand but nowhere does there exist a museum dedicated to all guitars and the evolution, history, and science of the guitar. There are barb wire museums, yarn museums, museums for all kinds of strange things but none solely dedicated to guitars, an instrument that outsells every other instrument COMBINED. Think about it. There’s Guitar Centers everywhere and they sell other instruments of course but they are called Guitar Center for a reason. There is not a whole chain of stores nationwide dedicated to violins. There is not a ‘Recorder Center’ or a ‘Cello Center’ in every city. So basically he did his research and put together a board and formed The National Guitar Museum as a traveling exhibit. The goal is to travel it around to different cities, see what the response it and scope out potential locations for an actual brick and mortar, permanent home for the museum. This whole thing transpired from his personal collection and a comment from a friend.
OLH: You mention that this exhibit needs a permanent home. Personally, I would love to see it stay in Mobile just so I could visit that Gretsch White Falcon whenever I wanted. Do you feel like Mobile would be the best home for what would be The National Guitar Museum?
JH: To have this exhibit live in Mobile permanently would be phenomenal! This collection we have now is stunning on its own and to have the entire collection here, along with all of the other elements, would just be incredible. Mobile has such a great history and appreciation of music, as you well know. Having the National Guitar Museum would be a great draw for tourism, of course. With Mobile being a sort of nexus of major music scenes and festivals, it just makes sense. Between Muscle Shoals, New Orleans, Birmingham, Nashville, and numerous other Southern cities, Mobile is perfect for something like this. Then you have your festival scene: Bonnaroo, Hangout, 1065, Voodoo Music Festival, SouthSounds. All of these festivals have people passing through our area so that is yet another reason to have Mobile as a permanent home for this. Will that happen? Who knows? Its on tour for a few more years until Harvey and his crew decide where to land. Regardless, we are extremely lucky to have landed this exhibit in Mobile. I highly encourage everyone to come see this, musicians and music fans or not, you will really enjoy this experience.
OLH: Undoubtedly a lot of work goes into setting something like this up. After all, you can’t make a multi year run out of something without a lot of planning and I am sure there is so much stuff that happens behind the scenes that we don’t even think about. Walk us through from the moment you all received initial knowledge that this exhibit existed to the set up for opening day.
JH: Being a music fan himself, our Assistant Director here at the Exploreum Don Comeaux called me almost frantically over a year ago from a conference in Ontario if I remember correctly. He told me the name of the exhibit and to look it up online right away. As soon as I saw it, I knew we had to have it. The guitars on display alone are enough to make anyone begin to salivate. Beyond that, Harvey and his team did an amazing job not only making sure that the story and deeply rich evolution of the guitar was told, but they also incorporated a immense amount of unique and engaging science into the exhibit. Obviously that was a done deal in our minds.
From there it was a matter of selling it to our board and our Executive Director, Jan McKay. And of course, raising the funds to get it here as we are a non-profit organization. We always have to consider our mission and vision of the Exploreum when looking at hosting an exhibit. Science and education are number one, hands down, every time. Not too long after the initial meeting with Harvey, Don and Jan flew up to Charlotte, N.C. to see the exhibit in person. Once Jan saw it, she was sold as well. We knew it had to come to Mobile before anyone else in the region had the chance to snag it. Harvey jokingly called Don and I the Blues Brothers as we seemed to be on a mission from God to get the exhibit to Mobile. So all in all, it took us almost two years from initial meetings to the semi showing up packed full of crates.
Our team managed to break down, pack up, and ship out the Sherlock exhibit, then renovate the gallery in preparation for Guitar in just a few days. Once the guitar exhibit arrived we managed to put the entire exhibit together along with a slew of other tasks like renovations, new permanent additions, and maintenance in under two weeks. That includes assembling approximately 60 guitar displays – each case has about 16 or so parts so do the math there. We also had all of the guitars to unpack and clean, create and install signage, adjust lighting, hang an entire photography exhibit, and… what am I leaving out? Oh! Assemble a 43.5 foot long, Guinness Book of World Records, playable Gibson Flying V guitar! Keep in mind our entire staff is only around two dozen people and not everyone was involved in this process. So given the size of our staff versus the task accomplished, I would say we really pulled off something incredible. What’s great is that everyone did it because they were all so excited about the exhibit, seeing the guitars and educational components, and feeling the pride that comes with working as a solid, cohesive team working towards a common goal. That common goal? Bringing one of the coolest exhibits Mobile has even seen!
43.5 foot long playable Gibson Flying V
OLH: The Gibson Flying V is one of my favourite parts of the exhibit. It’s something for little kids and the big kids at heart to oooh and ahhh over. For those of you who have not yet been to see the exhibit, think of this as the guitar version of the piano in F.A.O. Schwarz that Tom Hanks jumps on in “Big.” I found myself drooling over so many guitars in this exhibit. Including B.B. King’s “Lucille” and of course the Gretsch White Falcon. The Gretsch seems to be a staple in rockabilly. One of my favorite bands lead guitarist has his own custom one. I think that’s where I fell in love with it, seeing Chris Cheney of The Living End play it. Do you have any personal favourites? It must have been quite an experience for you and the staff opening all those crates full of killer guitars.
JH: Everyone has been really excited about this for a long time and when we finally got the displays assembled and Harvey started to uncrate the guitars, we were all like kids on Christmas morning. So really the whole process has been awe inspiring.
As for a personal favorite that is a tough one. These guitars are very precious and some are literally one of a kind. That being said, they are not meant to be handled regularly, hence the display cases. However, Harvey was kind enough to reward some of the staff, including myself, by allowing us to hold a select few guitars during the installation process. The first one I was able to hold was Steve Vai’s personal pre-production prototype Ibanez Jem. It’s one that was obviously used on the road and played for a while. I immediately responded to the crazy day-glo type color scheme and just had to get up close and personal. My brother, ten years my senior, introduced me to Steve’s music sometime around 1990 with the “Passion and Warfare” album. Although I was only around eight or nine years old at the time, I grew up around music and was enamored with his style of playing. My father had already exposed me to loads of other guitar-laden music from Hendrix and Clapton and many others, so his approach was really unique to me. I finally got to see Steve live a few months ago so that whole story has come full circle, I suppose.
The other two guitars that I was able to hold were Tony Iommi’s Epiphone SG. And yes, he normally plays an Epiphone, not the Gibson model although they are essentially the same thing. There is a long backstory there that Harvey shared with us but I am not sure it should be repeated in a public forum. Ha! That particular guitar was from one of the last Black Sabbath reunion tours and was actually played by the metal god himself.
Last, but certainly not least, I got to hold a model of B.B. King’s Lucille, which is essentially a Gibson ES-335. While not one of his touring guitars, it was still an honor to be able to hold it and see it up close. My father being an avid music fan and blues musician, I had a great appreciation for blues and B.B. King, among many others. I was quite the air harmonica player as a child, riding along in my dad’s van listening to everything from Slim Harpo, Little Walter, Taj Mahal, and countless others. Music has always been a passion of mine although I am not a musician. That is ultimately what helped get this exhibit here.
OLH: I think that is one of the many great things about this exhibit. It doesn’t appeal to just the gear head, but to the casual fan as well. I overheard you and Skoda speaking about making this exhibit a virtual experience for some folks that are unable to physically get to The Exploreum. Shed some light on that for us, because if what I eavesdropped is correct, it will be extremely awesome.
JH: Ha ha! This conversation came about when Kris Skoda and I were at the Mobile Arts Council annual Art Throwdown recently. We stepped outside for a breath of fresh air and catch up, as we haven’t seen each other in a while. While waxing poetic on life, friendships, past shenanigans, careers and all of that fun adult stuff, we got on topic of the guitar exhibit and I invited him to come see the exhibit on opening day and he kindly offered to come out and photograph the opening day festivities. Somehow that conversation moved over to the USA Women’s and Children’s Hospital. I think he had recently done some work over there or something to the effect, and I mentioned that we also visited the hospital once as month as part of our outreach programs. I brought up that myself and several staff members had kicked around the idea of somehow creating a virtual tour of the Exploreum and traveling exhibits so that the kids and parents who couldn’t leave the hospital due to health concerns could take a virtual tour of the Exploreum and get to experience all of the great exhibits that we bring to Mobile. We plan on getting together soon and getting this project off the ground as soon as we possibly can.
OLH: Thanks, Josh for getting us up to speed on on everything!
JH: Thanks! I am over the moon with this exhibit and hope everyone comes to check it out!
There are a lot of interesting events associated with the exhibit. We have listed a few below. If you would like to learn more about The Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center and all of it’s endeavors, check out:
Saturday, November 5, 11 a.m. – Derek Jones, local musician, will perform live at the Exploreum.
Thursday, November 10, 6 p.m. – Classical guitar performance by Mark Habib, professor and classical guitarist from the University of South Alabama.
Saturday, November 19 – Air Guitar Finals will take place at the Exploreum with celebrity judges, performances, prizes, and more!