Music professor co-curates Smithsonian exhibition on legendary Apollo Theater

Apollo Theater Photo credit: Courtesy of the Apollo Theater Foundation; Photo by Shahar Azran

Penn music professor Guthrie Ramsey, Jr. acknowledges that his journey from college professor to co-curator of a major exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution has been breathtakingly short. In his first foray into the museum world, Ramsey helped launch the landmark exhibition about New York's legendary Apollo Theater, titled "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment."

Presented by the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in collaboration with the Apollo Theater Foundation, the exhibition premiered in the NMAAHC Gallery in Washington D.C. on April 23 and continues through Aug. 29. It will travel to Detroit in October and then on to New York next year.

The exhibition marks the 75th anniversary of the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. Taking its title from the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell song of the same name, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” gives visitors a glimpse into the lives of African Americans in the 20th century through the prism of one-of-a-kind and rarely displayed artifacts, costumes, playbills, music scores, photographs and music recordings.

How did Ramsey come to curate the exhibition? “It was a gift. And that’s how I looked at it," he says.

Two years ago Ramsey attended a conference of the Organization of American Historians, moderated by a curator at the Smithsonian. A week after the conference ended, he received an email from the moderator asking if he knew anyone with a background in music and an interest in museums who could help launch an exhibition on the history of the Apollo Theater. Ramsey’s then fiancée (now wife), Kellie Jones, an art historian and curator at Columbia University, encouraged him to do it. Drawing on his vast knowledge of African-American and American music, jazz and pop music, Ramsey worked with exhibition co-curator Tuliza Fleming of the museum acquiring, organizing and overseeing the collection of historical items now on display.

They acquired objects from private and publicly held collections at the African American Museum of Philadelphia, the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, the Library of Congress, the Museum of the City of New York, the National Afro American Museum of Ohio, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

“To see something grow from my first visit to the Apollo Theater’s off site storage in upper Manhattan to an exhibition that has combined the efforts of designers and researchers and writers is pretty amazing," Ramsey says. "What was new to me was that one could tell history though objects. As a musicologist, music is the object. But in this world, you can tell history in other ways.”

The collection includes Duke Ellington’s 1927 score for Black and Tan Fantasy, James Brown’s cape and jumpsuit, Michael Jackson’s 1984 “Victory Tour” black fedora, Louis Armstrong's Selmer Trumpet from Paris, circa 1930; Cab Calloway’s baton, Sammy Davis’ childhood tap shoes, and LL Cool J’s jacket and hat.

Originally published on April 27, 2010