The question came from my nephew as he stood gazing at my turntable, the centerpiece of my life while I was growing up. “It’s a record player,” I explained, “and it plays music!”
In many ways, it’s an age test. The Oakland Museum of California’s exhibition dedicated to the history and culture of vinyl opened on April 19 in conjunction with Record Store Day and runs through July. The exhibition is less a typical gallery show and more an interactive experience with listening booths, lounge areas, and even kid-sized listening stations for the previously uninitiated.
Discs with spiral grooves inscribed with music came into existence at the beginning of the 20th century. They became a popular commodity in the 1920s only to be replaced in the 1980s by a newer digital technology, compact discs. Before recordings became popular, music was live and songs were viral — something you caught on the air. Musicians learned tunes by listening to other musicians, and the experience was, by its nature and immediacy, communal.
Vinyl revolutionized the way people listened to music by allowing them to hear the same performance repeatedly and in the privacy of their homes. This medium, as we know, coincided with the rise of rock ‘n’ roll and the corresponding music industry boom from the 1950s–70s. You could find out a lot about your friends by looking at their record collection, which became its own kind of social identity. For many, your record collection represented you.
The vinyl fad has returned. The Oakland Museum gallery, transformed into an experimental listening environment, invites the viewer to interact with history. Notable record collections are on view, including photographs of collectors in their homes complete with video and audio interviews. A film exploring the history of album cover art is included, along with a wide assortment of records for the public to view and play. Instructors are on site to teach the public how to use a record player and how to DJ with instructional videos. Six thematic listening stations contain boxes of records assembled by “crate curators” to tell a personal story through their musical selections.
And while you’re having fun listening and learning about music, you won’t even notice that you’ve become a part of the exhibition.
Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records, Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak Street, 510-318-8400, museumca.org; Wednesday–Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. (Friday until 9 p.m.), $15