In the course of 370 years, American banjo pickers have played along with nearly every type of music.
The instrument’s versatility is one of the messages shared at the American Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City. In fact, Oklahoma City was chosen as the museum’s home because the city, not known for any particular musical genre, would prevent the instrument from being tied to any one style of music.
“The reality was we didn’t want to go to city that would assign an identity to the banjo,” said Johnny Baier, executive director.
In Bricktown, the museum is an expanded version of a decade-old collection housed in Guthrie, Okla. Moving to the larger space in Oklahoma City has given the museum more visibility and allowed it to expand its story and collection.
The new facility allows the museum to tell the banjo’s entire history. “We cover every period of the banjo’s evolution, and it has had a number of them,” said Baier. “There’s been an evolution in the way it is played, designed, built and tuned.”
Like the instrument, exhibits are lively, employing audio and video so the banjos and their pickers do the story telling. A big hit is a 10-minute video of the banjo in movies and television. Upstairs, visitors are awed by several hundred banjos from the museum’s growing collection. “Visitors will say, ‘Holy cow, I never knew there were so many banjos,’” said Baier.
The museum, the only one of its kind in the world, has become an after-hours events venue; during the day, groups can also arrange in advance for a live banjo performance, given by Baier, a professional musician, or other local pickers, in the museum’s replica of a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor, complete with a player piano and stained glass.