Grammy Museum takes charge of music history
Deep within the high-security Iron Mountain storage facility in Hollywood, where nearly every doorway except for the restroom has a security-card swipe lock, sits the Grammy Museum's permanent collection of pop-music artifacts.
Hundreds of 10-inch 78 rpm discs — some from Thomas Edison's record label — reside in archival boxes on 20-foot-long metal shelves, near antique radios and phonograph players, musical instruments, posters and celebrity fashion items.
Vintage synthesizers in original cases take up a shelf right below three distinctive accordions, an instrument Mark Twain famously dubbed “the stomach Steinway.”
The Grammy Museum may have opened a little less than four years ago in downtown's L.A. Live entertainment complex, but it's looking at myriad new ways to store and exhibit its collection.
“People offer to donate things, but until we had someplace to properly store and preserve them, we've had to turn a lot of those offers down,” executive director Robert Santelli said during a walk-through of the museum's growing archive.
“We have to be able to safely store the items, insure them — and be sure we can make them accessible to the public at some point, because we are an educational museum,” he said. “We're working without an acquisition budget, so we have to rely on donations.”
Grammy Museum assistant curator Ali Stuebner slipped on a pair of white cotton gloves to peek under the lid of a 4-foot-tall 1920s-vintage Edison phonograph resting against one of the storage space's bunker-like concrete walls, and to show a visitor one of two old (but well cared for) piano accordions donated by squeeze-box virtuoso Ernie Felice. She later riffled through a couple of large boxes, each holding perhaps thousands of 5-inch by 7-inch white notecards collected from one of Yoko Ono's wishing trees, a project for which passersby were invited to complete the thought “Imagine a world ...” in their own words and/or drawings.
It's gems like these that caused the museum to partner with Iron Mountain about 18 months ago, the company providing the storage space about six months later.
The Grammy Museum's spot in the building is modest: It's a repository of about 900 air-conditioned square feet, compact compared with some of Iron Mountain's 800 other entertainment-world clients, whose holdings fill a 10,000-square-foot floor of the 14-story building.
All the major record companies store master recordings made over the last 90 years here, said Jeff Anthony, Iron Mountain senior vice president of entertainment services. These recordings have increasingly become a part of revenue-generating plans as new music has become ever more challenging to break.
Anthony says the pairing with the Grammy Museum dovetails with his company's mission to assist clients in digitizing their collections and, for those businesses in the private sector, making them profitable.
“It's about monetization,” Anthony said of Iron Mountain's for-profit clients, who have since discovered the payoff — through home video, reissues and myriad licensing opportunities — for being mindful of history.
The archive is opening in conjunction with an exhibition surveying the 125-year history of Columbia Records, a show that's also packed with pop-music artifacts.
Among the items: a pair of Johnny Cash's boots and his lyrics for the song “Cry, Cry, Cry”; Bob Dylan letters and lyrics; a jacket and trumpet that belonged to Miles Davis; a tie and letter from Louis Armstrong; one of Barbra Streisand's dresses; stage sketches and lyrics from Public Enemy's Chuck D.; and a trombone played by New Orleans jazz pioneer Kid Ory.
Randy Lewis is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.