Why do over half a million people flock to Graceland every year or fly across the world to see The Beatles’ instruments in person? Music fans are not only inspired by the songs of their favourite artists, but the stories behind how the music came to be. While museums have been hit hard from pandemic-related closures, many of these treasured cultural institutions have found inventive ways for people to virtually visit and share rare gems from their archives. From Hitsville, USA, to Liverpool, here are some of the best music museums the world has to offer.
Motown Museum (Detroit, Michigan, US)
See where the iconic “Motown Sound” was born at the label’s first headquarters in downtown Detroit, aka Hitsville USA. From 1959 until 1989, the modest building housed the label’s recording studio and office, along with founder Berry Gordy Jr’s residence upstairs. After Motown decamped to Los Angeles, the house was converted into a museum to display all the costumes, photographs and other historic memorabilia of the label’s rich history. With a reported 50,000 square foot expansion plan in the works, the house that Berry built is about to get a whole lot grander.
The Museum Of Pop Culture (MoPop) (Seattle, Washington, US)
Aside from the Space Needle and Pike Place Market, the futuristic MoPop museum is one of the most visited sights in Seattle. The 140,000-foot museum bears the unmistakable curved design of Frank Gehry and is meant to “convey all the energy and fluidity of music”. Formerly known as the Experience Music Project, MoPop was founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and is dedicated to exploring creativity in all its forms, from Nirvana’s early beginnings to Prince’s Purple Rain. While you’re there, visit the newly erected Chris Cornell statue.
The Beatles Story (Liverpool, UK)
As one of the must-see sights in Liverpool and best music museums the city has to offer, the aptly titled The Beatles Story is the definitive chronicle of the lives, culture and music of The Beatles. Located on the UNESCO World Site waterfront at the Royal Albert Dock, the award-winning museum takes you on an immersive experience through the band’s rise to fame, including a replica of the Cavern Club, along with original instruments, rare photos and other memorabilia. In addition to their permanent collection, the museum also hosts rotating exhibits like Beatles In India, which highlights the band’s transformative time in Rishikesh.
ABBA: The Museum (Stockholm, Sweden)
You can’t visit the land of pop without honouring the group who started it all. This highly interactive museum not only chronicles the group’s remarkable career, but puts your ABBA knowledge and musical skills to the test. You can “audition” to be the fifth member of the band in their live karaoke sound booth, perform alongside projections of the band and even appear in a music video. The museum also boasts a rare collection of costumes and other ephemera, including the outfits ABBA wore for their historic Eurovision performance.
Stax Museum Of American Soul Music (Memphis, Tennessee, US)
Hailed as “the only museum in the world dedicated strictly to American soul music”, the Stax museum in Memphis has seen its share of history. Celebrating the stars of Soulsville, like Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding and Rufus Thomas, the music museum offers a treasure trove of history including the flamboyant stage costumes worn by Thomas and Little Milton, Phalon Jones’ saxophone, salvaged from the plane crash that took Jones, Redding and members of The Bar-Keys, and the real crown jewel, Isaac Hayes’ customised 1972 Cadillac, complete with rabbit-fur carpet and solid gold windshield wipers.
Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame (Cleveland, Ohio, US)
Since opening in 1995, this music museum has been the mecca for all things rock, featuring seven floors of rare rock memorabilia, four theatrical theatres and ever-changing exhibits that span the genre’s rich history, from Robert Johnson to Def Leppard. Since its inception, the museum has grown to include artefacts from hip-hop and pop, so there’s something for every music fan, from Chris Cornell’s guitar to Beastie Boys’ costumes from their ‘Intergalactic’ video.
The Grammy Museum (Los Angeles, California, US)
Like the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, The Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles pays tribute to all genres of music, from The Beatles to Backstreet Boys. The highly interactive museum boasts musical tutorials and actual instruments you can play, along with handwritten lyrics and one-of-a-kind photos. They also host a robust calendar of public programming in their intimate theatre, from Guns N’ Roses’ Duff McKagan previewing his solo album to exclusive documentary screenings. Also visit their sister museum in Mississippi, which focuses on artists from the Delta.
Handel & Hendrix In London (London, UK)
What are the odds that two musical geniuses inhabited the same dwelling? 25 Brook Street, London, was home to both the legendary classical composer George Frideric Handel and, two centuries later, rock icon Jimi Hendrix and his girlfriend. The museum celebrates two musical innovators separated by history and brings them together in a unique music museum. Guests can also catch live performances and lectures on these two musical giants.
Bob Marley Museum (Kingston, Jamaica)
Get a glimpse into the life of reggae icon Bob Marley at his former residence-turned museum. See where he recorded some of his most beloved songs in his old recording studio, along with personal artefacts from his former home, where he lived from 1975 until his death in 1981. Along with Marley’s personal effects, the museum also houses costumes worn by his back-up singers, The I-Threes, and other iconic pieces such as his Grammy Lifetime Achievement award.
Musée Edith Piaf (Paris, France)
While millions visit the grave of French chanson Edith Piaf in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery every year, Musée Edith Piaf remains an unsung jewel across town. Located in a private apartment in the 11th arrondissement, the museum contains much of the late singer’s personal artefacts, including clothes, photographers and personal letters. While there are no guided tours, the museum is run by Piaf’s fan and friend ,who personally recalls his time with the “Little Sparrow”.
Country Music Hall Of Fame And Museum (Nashville, Tennessee, US)
It’s no surprise that Music City is the home to many music museums dedicated to country music and its stars, from The Johnny Cash Museum to The Patsy Cline Museum, but if you want to see everything under one roof, the 350,000-square-foot Country Music Hall Of Fame is the place to visit. The museum is divided into three floors that trace the progression of country music as well as stage rotating exhibitions such as Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring 70s and Emmylou Harris: Songbird’s Flight.
National Blues Museum (St Louis, Missouri, US)
Since 2016, the National Blues Museum has been dedicated to “keeping the blues alive” through their growing archive of rare photographs and recordings. Tracing the genre’s history from Africa to the present day, the museum offers a walk-through history using interactive exhibits, costumes, artefacts and documentary films. Not content to keep the blues limited to the past, the venue also hosts live performances every Thursday, Friday and Sunday.
Graceland (Memphis, Tennessee, US)
Elvis Presley’s mythical mansion remains the most famous rock’n’roll residence – and now music museum – in the world, and for good reason. Graceland is a celebration of both Elvis’ stunning career and mid-century kitsch. Even non-Elvis fans can appreciate his show-stopping costumes and the legendary Jungle Room, complete with rock waterfall and green shag carpeting. Since Elvis first purchased the eight-bedroom home back in 1957, at the age of 22, Graceland has undergone significant changes. 2017 saw a $45 million-dollar expansion that includes the adjacent Elvis Presley Automobile Museum and Elvis: The Entertainer Career Museum. To this day, over 750,000 visitors a year pay their respects to The King in the meditation garden where he was interred.