New Rock Hall Curator Designs Music History Stories for Next Generation

Nwaka Onwusa [photo: Ashley Walker]
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From a Johnny Cash guitar to Lady Gaga’s meat dress to an FBI letter about N.W.A., the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is full of artifacts documenting music history.  As the Rock Hall’s new director of curatorial affairs, Nwaka Onwusa will help design displays that examine the cultural impact of such performers.

The daughter of a Nigerian father and an American mother, Onwusa said she was exposed to a wide variety of music as a child.  She thinks that upbringing helped inform her work over the past 10 years at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, where she created exhibits for artists like bluesman John Lee Hooker, country rocker Marty Stuart, pop singer Taylor Swift and rapper (and Rock Hall inductee) Tupac Shakur.

“The exhibit I did to celebrate him was really to look at hip-hop at a different way,” she said.  “There’s a lot of demonizing that goes on against hip hop music, and Tupac specifically. I really wanted to celebrate who he was, not only as an artist … but as a writer, as a poet, as a philanthropist, as an activist, as an entrepreneur.”

Onwusa said she goes into storytelling mode when she develops a display.

“For instance, working with Marty Stuart, we had this document – I call it his testament – an assignment he had to do in fifth or sixth-grade,” she said.  “He’s writing out what he wanted to be when he grows up.  And it turns out that this man manifested his whole life’s destiny in this school assignment.”

The Rock Hall’s new curator added that she tries to keep an open mind when she begins a new project.  She may go in with a list of specific items she’d like to get from an artist’s personal collection, but sometimes the key to an entire exhibit will be found in a forgotten postcard that falls out of an old songbook.

Onwusa said her exhibits are not just catering to the nostalgic feelings of older music fans.

“Museums are also for the younger generation, to know who Tom Petty was, to know who Prince was, to know who Lead Belly was,” she said. “Why are these people critical to the music that you’re listening to today?”

The Rock Hall's new director of curatorial affairs, Nwaka Onwusa, with ideastream's David C. Barnett.  [Dave DeOreo / ideastream]

WEB EXTRA: The path to becoming a curator began in a household where pop music was banned:

 

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