“Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial,” sang Bob Dylan on “Visions Of Johanna”, arguably his greatest song and the standout track on 1966’s Blonde On Blonde album. Now his own collection of artefacts is being turned into a public museum in Oklahoma.
In March 2016, Dylan sold his personal archive of around 6,000 items – including notes, drafts of lyrics, poetry, letters, artwork, photographs and more – to the University of Tulsa and the George Kaiser Foundation. It was rumoured to have sold for between $15 million and $20 million.
The initial purpose was to open it all up to researchers. “Materials in the archive are available to view exclusively onsite at the Helmerich Center for American Research at Gilcrease Museum, in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” says the archive’s official site. “Due to high demand, access to the archive will only be granted to individuals with qualified research projects, and only by appointment.” To ram home the point, it says in block capitals and underlining, “THE BOB DYLAN ARCHIVE® IS NOT OPEN TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC.”
But the collection is finally being made accessible to the public, with the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa announcing it will open in May 2022. It is boasting of 100,000 “exclusive culture treasures” being put on display and events company 59 Productions, who worked on the David Bowie Is touring exhibit, is involved in the layout.
For many Dylanologists, this is the singer’s own sprawling Rosetta Stone which they feel – or at least they hope – will unlock many of the great mysteries of his Byzantine 60-year body of work.
Dylan has been carefully curating his own past for several decades now, most notably through the ongoing Bootleg Series of albums since 1991 that offer a wealth of unreleased recordings, demos, live tracks and alternative versions of songs from particular eras of his career. The series is now up to its fifteenth volume and shows no sign of running out of steam.
He also added an autobiography of sorts to the pile with the release of Chronicles: Volume One in 2004 (a second volume has never been confirmed) which was certainly more readable than his befuddling experimental prose poetry collection Tarantula that was eventually published in 1971.
He has also, it should be pointed out, been incredibly keen to throw in all manner of curveballs to confuse and confound the extraordinary levels of exegesis that have been applied to his work.
This historical wrong-footing was seen as hitting its peak with the 2019 release on Netflix of the Martin Scorsese semi-documentary Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story. It followed Dylan’s 1975 tour of the same name in which many preposterous claims were made, most notably that his Kabuki makeup on that tour was actually inspired by, of all groups, Kiss who Dylan was made aware of by a pre-fame Sharon Stone.
There is an added poignancy to the news about the Bob Dylan Center given that Dylan himself has been doing major housekeeping recently, most significantly the selling of his entire music publishing catalogue to Universal Music Group for a rumoured $300 million at the end of 2020.
Typically a museum dedicated to a musician opens long after they have died. We can trace that back to the opening of Graceland in June 1982 when Elvis Presley’s home became part museum, part tourist exhibit and part shrine. The Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle originally opened in 2000 as Experience Music Project and was dedicated to Jimi Hendrix but has since broadened out to include more acts.
There are also official museums dedicated to Johnny Cash, Peggy Lee, Patsy Cline and recently Prince (although Paisley Park is more visitors’ centre than pure museum). Other major musicians’ collections are exclusively for researchers such as The Ray Charles Memorial Library and the Count Basie collection at Rutgers.
The most curious of all museums, however, is probably the Musée d’Édith Piaf in Paris devoted to the French singer which occupies just two rooms in a fourth-floor apartment block. Run by fan Bernard Marchois, it is only open between 1pm and 6pm every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, bookings can only be made on the phone and “tours” are conducted entirely in French.
Such museums are typically the final stage in the cultural anointment of a musician – publicly proclaiming they have created a body of work of huge musical significance and lived a rich life of huge cultural significance. They become mausoleums to dead pop stars and while living artists will have touring exhibitions devoted to them and their careers, it is only a handful of them that have operational museums dedicated to them – notably ABBA, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson.
Always keen to control (and sometimes confuse) the meaning of his own legacy, this is Dylan letting rare light in on his work. Although don’t rule out a whole room devoted to his collection of Kiss memorabilia.