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Shakira, Shakira: The Grammy Museum Experience - How to curate a music exhibit for a global superstar

Shakira Shakira The Grammy Experience

On May 29-31st, 2023, the Music Tourism Convention will be travelling to Cape Breton Island in Canada. This will an exciting gathering of professionals who will be discussing and sharing the best practices of music tourism from all around the world.

As we get ready for the event, we’re expanding our new #musictourismhub series, a place to discover stories, profiles and resources from people working at the forefront of Music Tourism.

On this occasion, we head up to Los Angeles in the U.S.A., to talk with Ernesto Lechner, curator of the Shakira Exhibition at the Grammy's Museum, and a a renowned music journalist who has been covering Latin music for over two decades.

In this interview he gives us some insights on his work at Shakira, Shakira: The Grammy Museum Experience, a music exhibit for a global superstar.

Hi Ernesto, thank you for taking the time to do this interview for our Music Tourism Hub.

To begin, we’d like to ask about your creative path. How did you get to this point in your career?

Growing up, I knew that there was no way I would be good at a conventional profession. Fortunately, there was a radio DJ in Athens who played the best music: rock, soul, R&B, jazz and movie soundtracks. He was the person who gave me hope about following a different career path in which I could be immersed in music and share my enthusiasm about it. Writing became a natural thing for me. During class in high school, I would write endless record reviews on a blue notebook and dissect records by Genesis, Pink Floyd or The Police. It became an obsession.

When I moved to LA, I reached out to newspapers and got in the groove of writing concert and album reviews, which at the time - the ‘90s - was the bread and butter of music journalism. I started contributing to Spanish newspaper La Opinión, and then realised that I had to teach myself how to write in English if I wanted to make an actual living doing this.

What’s your main focus when covering a story?

I became a Latin music journalist simply because there was a need for people like myself to build a bridge between the U.S. mainstream and the vast landscape of music being made in Latin America.

My main focus when covering Latin is to tackle the American media’s misconception of it as happy, “caliente” music meant for dancing. It’s a patronising point of view that paints it as a superficial genre meant for entertainment. Behind Celia Cruz’s purple wigs lies a formidable artist with a dazzling discography.

Ernesto Lechner, music journalist

Let’s dive into the Grammy Museum Shakira exhibition. Did you have any previous experience curating for museums?

The Shakira exhibit was my first experience as a curator. You can imagine how nervous and incredibly emotional I felt throughout the experience.

I did have curatorial experience of some sort. I’ve curated a lot of playlists for different projects, and I have done music stories using slide shows and visual components. I’ve also been a museum fanatic since childhood. As a kid in the ‘80s, I was lucky to attend an exhibition in Paris called “Tintin’s Imaginary Museum,” filled with artefacts that provided visual inspiration for the 23 Tintin books. Since I saw that show, I always dreamed of working on a similar project.

How did the Shakira exhibit come about?

I had pitched the Grammy Museum a potential exhibit about psychedelia and Latin music. They were very receptive, but after my presentation, I thought I would never hear from them again. A few months later, they reached out and said: “we love the psychedelia idea, but we’re not moving forward with that. Would you like to do a Shakira exhibit instead?” I love challenges, and realised that I had been following her career for decades. I had interviewed her, seen her in concert and written about her music. I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity.

An Exhibit About Shakira's Brilliance

What would you say was the main objective of creating the exposition? 

There were a couple of things at play whilst putting the exhibit together. Something that I’ve always found fascinating about Shakira is that she really loves all kinds of music, stuff from all over the world. Throughout her career she has reached out and experimented with basically every single song format and genre that you can think of. And every single time she’s been incredibly respectful to the roots of the style that she’s exploring. I wanted the exhibit to focus on that. I also felt that because she's a woman and a global pop star, people tend to think of her as somebody who makes music that is superficial - light and fluffy - and that is certainly not the case. I wanted people to leave the exhibit thinking that Shakira is much more complex than what they thought before visiting the museum.

Her amazing catalogue gave us the opportunity to cover song formats from all over the world. I wanted the Shakira exhibit to examine her career, but also to function as a love letter to the many formats of popular song throughout the 20th and 21st century. 

What was the main challenge of putting it together?

Timing was the main challenge. While we designed the exhibit, Shakira was recording her much anticipated new album and planning a world tour. So she really wasn’t available to offer a lot of objects for display - she was just too busy. We planned most of the exhibit not knowing exactly what we were going to get from her team. After we built all the inhouse visual elements of the show, we did get some things from her. My favourite one is her notebook with handwritten lyrics. The exhibit also includes some of her guitars, costumes and extra things but it’s not overpopulated with personal artefacts. That’s why we had to come up with ideas such as the big Atlas that you discover as you enter the exhibition. A big map that shows all the places that Shakira has explored with her music. Through it, you get to listen to all of those songs and explore the genres through text cards and videos with information. We also created a lyric annotator in which we dissect four of her songs and the poetry of her lyrics. That’s how we managed to deliver a comprehensive and analytical view of her career without relying too much on artefacts.

What would you say are the top pieces that anchor the exposition? Are there any interactive elements in it?

In terms of artefacts, the top pieces are definitely her notebook, the electric guitars, and some of her iconic costumes. In terms of what we built ourselves, I would say the Atlas is the centrepiece, because everything else stems from it. There’s also an interactive TikTok challenge where you get to dance to one of Shakira’s routines, and also some video documentaries that were created specifically for the exhibit. One includes young critics talking about Shakira, which is wonderful. But If I had to go for just one piece, I would say the lyric annotator is essential because you get to see her craftsmanship with words and all these references she uses - historical events, popular sayings - underscoring that she can write beautiful lyrics in both English and Spanish.

Anchor pieces of a music museum

Some of Shakira’s best songs arrived in the aftermath of a big breakup. Did you ever consider using “breakups” as a theme for the exhibit?

Definitely not. That would’ve been somewhat opportunistic. I think we favoured a more epic view of her career. It’s true that she made some great songs out of her recent breakup, but we were definitely going for the bigger picture here. It would be very reductive, I think, because in Shakira’s life there’s also triumph and rediscovery, independence, defiance - invention and reinvention. So all those themes were present, together with the breakups. Overall, her brilliance was the main theme of what we did.

Do you have any recommendations for artists interested in curating an exhibition about their own careers?

I think you need an outside person to curate an exhibit focusing on an artist. Otherwise it would never work out. An artist can contribute by sharing personal artefacts - the more personal the artefacts the better the exhibit. I would shy away from Grammy awards, platinum records and stuff like that. Focus instead on handwritten notes, love letters, little scraps of poetry, a dry leaf inside a book. Those kinds of objects are the ones that can really transport you to a different place when you’re experiencing an exhibit.

We hope you enjoyed the insights that Ernesto shared about his work at Shakira's Exhibition at the Grammy Museum in this entry for the Music Tourism Hub. If you want to learn more about music tourism best practices then join us on May 29-31st, 2023, at the Cape Breton Island Music Tourism Convention.  

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