The National Blues Museum — a sensory rich, colorful homage to blues music — is now open in downtown St. Louis.
A crowd of people attended the long-awaited grand opening Saturday, lining up down the 600 block of Washington Avenue to be the first to see the new exhibits.
“We’re very excited to be here,” said local blues musician Chris Shepherd while waiting to get inside. “We’re hoping this is really going to establish St. Louis as a music city. I mean we know it as musicians. There are tons of great musicians here.”
“But in general we don’t have the image that Nashville or Memphis has, as far as, you know, people coming to St. Louis specifically for the music. And I’m hoping that the blues museum will kind of put us on the map for that,” said Shepherd.
The 23,000 square foot museum showcases the history and influence of blues music in America using a mix of immersive experiences and historical exhibits — from song books and records to costumes and instruments.
One exhibit highlights the contributions of St. Louis musicians. Another plays tribute to great female artists. Some exhibits are organized according to chronology, others are organized by geography.
Jessica Moore and her mother Robin Mitcham came down from Indianapolis to see the museum. After touring the exhibits they said the like the interactive elements best, which allowed them to play instruments along with a local jug band and compose songs using technology similar to Garage Band.
“You get to make music—your own record — and become a hit maker in your own little world,” said Moore.
“I think the interactive part of it is going to draw old and young because you can write your own lyrics, add your music and at the end you have a song,” added Mitcham, who is a friend of the museum’s executive director.
Plans for the privately-run museum have been in the works for at least five years.
Unlike other blues museums, the National Blues Museum encompasses the entire history of the art form instead of focusing on a region or a specific artist.
Board member Devon Allman said St. Louis is a good place to house the comprehensive museum because “St. Louis has a rich history of blues music. Albert King. Ike and Tina Turner. Chuck Berry. Even Miles Davis played a form of the blues with his jazz music. Soulard (is) rich with blues history.”
“I think it makes sense geographically as well,” Allman added. “It’s right in the middle of Memphis and Chicago. Those were other cities that tried to get something off the ground and we beat them to it.”
Allman said the National Blues Museum could have a similar influence on St. Louis that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has had on Cleveland.
“(The hall of fame) really put them on the map from an artistic angle. That’s a city that was rich in history with the steel workers and the sports teams and that was about it. They got the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and their downtown flourished,” Allman said.
Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has had some financial problems, but Allman is optimistic about the National Blues Museum’s chances for success.
“We hope that as word spreads about how nice of a facility that it’ll attract people. There’s a certain clip that we’re going to need per year to get in there, and I think that we’ll hit that,” Allman said. “It’s in a great location. And then we also have space for special events. We’re going to have concerts inside the venue. So there will be a lot of different incentives to get people in there.”
The museum is adjacent to the America’s Center Convention Complex on Washington Avenue. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students.
Allman said the National Blues Museum also has one advantage over the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“The main thing it has going for it is that it isn’t crazy big. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland is really, really big. Their overhead must be astronomical,” said Allman. “This one is more manageable size-wise. It’s the perfect size for St. Louis and I don’t think we’re in over our heads at all. I think it’s going to have a really strong future.”
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.