Hey Smithsonian –How do you capture music in a museum?

Music is a vital part of American history and culture, and the Smithsonian has deemed 2019 the “Year of Music,” with music programming happening daily across the institution – meaning 365 days of music! In a museum, we wondered how you share something as vibrant and sensory as music. And boy, were we impressed by the answer!

Ken Kimery and Roshni Gorur are Program Director and Project Manager, respectively, of Smithsonian Jazz, an initiative of the National Museum of American History. These resident experts filled us in on how they’re taking the museum outside the physical walls, making jazz accessible, and bringing it to life as part of a living history!

Smithsonian Jazz explores and celebrates the American experience through the transformative power of Jazz. This initiative creates informative and engaging experiences in a variety of ways, including:

  • Collecting objects. The cornerstone of their collection is the Duke Ellington collection and has grown to include the Benny Carter and Ella Fitzgerald collections, among others
  • Oral histories from dancers, producers, musicians, etc.. These oral histories cover 20th century history such as the Great Migration, from the people who lived it.
  • The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, which is in residence at the National Museum of American History, which performs and gives audiences a sense of what the objects in the collection really mean. When it began, the orchestra performed music from the collections, but “the music is living and breathing” and the orchestra adapted to include new compositions and arrangements.
  • The experience of jazz is richer than just listening to great music, so Smithsonian Jazz pioneered the method of including historical context to sheet music, giving audiences, including educators, a way to contextually prepare to play the music. They’ve also developed lesson plans and educational resources for educators to teach this historical context in the classroom.
  • Digitization of objects from the collections, which has made it possible to expand the audience for jazz and give them access to the Smithsonian collections when they’re not in Washington, D.C.

By consciously working to remove the barrier between audience and musicians, Smithsonian Jazz allows visitors to experience music as a part of a living history. So how is Smithsonian Jazz celebrating the “Year of Music”?  With “Jazz Beyond Borders!”

This global concert series will have the Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra traveling to 10 global cities to perform in front of audiences. During the tour, the orchestra will also go into communities and schools to share its jazz music and learn the jazz music of the local communities it visits.

Roshni Gorur states, “Our goal is not to travel around the world to show people how great American jazz is, but to share in the collaborative experience of the global jazz melting pot, community partner to community partner. Like America, the jazz melting pot thrives with new contributions, genuine diversity, and authentic collaboration, which, all together, leaves us with something much greater than the sum of its parts.”

Want to catch experience the Smithsonian “Year of Music” for yourself? You can see all their events here.

In 2018, WorldStrides became the approved domestic educational travel provider of the Smithsonian. This blog is part of a series, “Hey Smithsonian!” where we ask our friends at the venerable institution questions that dig deeper into this special place and all it has to offer!


Article written by Nikki Fabrizio

Nikki Fabrizio
Nikki creates content and enjoys highlighting the exuberance of experiential learning. In her free time you can find her traveling, hiking and practicing circus arts.

Related Itineraries