Irsay’s Magical, Movable, Musical Museum

Sometimes you hear about an event, and you know you just have to go!

This was the case for me when I heard that the The Jim Irsay Collection (TJIC) would be in Boston on Saturday, July 15, 2023. From the description, it sounded like a mashup of a traveling museum and a rock concert. Both hard to resist on their own, totally irresistible together. Plus, it was free :)

Here’s a promo for the event from TJIC’s YouTube Channel.

The event did not disappoint — it was magical!

Of course, the museum was what I was most anxious to see. About a decade ago I organized a series of pop-up exhibits for my NEW Computer Museum, so I knew that such things require some thought and coordination. I was also curious to see how the artifacts would be displayed. Wow, was I surprised at what I saw. To call TJIC a “pop-up” doesn’t do it justice. It is a full-scale museum that just happens to be movable, and it has an amazing array of fascinating things to see.

There was an email to attendees before the event that included a list of the things in the collection broken down into the categories of Guitars, Music, Pop Culture, American History, Fine Books and Manuscripts. However, that email didn’t really capture what it was like to actually see all of those objects.

For example, the list of Irsay’s thirty rare guitars didn’t capture how overwhelming it was to see cases of them, while knowing that each guitar had it’s own story about its historical significance. I’m certain it would take days to hear all of them, and I couldn’t help but wish that someday they are recorded and put online.
Jim Irsay Guitar Collection

The email also listed over a dozen objects under the heading of Music. Again, that didn’t capture what it was like to stand next to Ringo’s Ludwig Oyster Black Pearl Drum Kit and Snare drum, John Lennon’s Sgt. Peppers Piano, or Elton John’s Steinway & Sons Model D Grand Piano.

It was also inspiring to be able to stand and stare at Bob Dylan’s working lyrics for The Times They Are A-Changin’.

Bob Dylan's Working Lyrics for The Times They Are A-Changin'

As you go through the exhibit, it becomes clear that the collection’s coherence comes through understanding it as an expression of Irsay’s personal journey — you can get a tiny sense of that by looking him up on Wikipedia.

For example, there’s an exhibit featuring the original typescript scroll of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. It was mind-bending!

Here’s an interesting story about it.
Jack Kerouac’s Famous Scroll, ‘On the Road’ Again (Andrea Shea, All Things Considered)

It was at this point that it became clear that, no matter what it looked or felt like, this wasn’t a typical museum. That’s because James Canary, the conservator of the scroll, was standing there chatting with anyone who walked up, including me.

We had a lovely conversation.

Then he kindly directed me on to an adjacent exhibit which was also clearly close to Irsay’s heart. It was the original Draft Manuscript of the Alcoholics Anonymous The Big Book.

The Kerouac and AA exhibits were listed in the email to attendees as in the category of “American History/Fine Books and Manuscripts.” There were dozens of other artifacts in that category, and stolling through that part of the collection felt like a trip to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Here’s a list from the map of that part of the exhibit.
American History Exhibit List

Yes, indeed you could just walk right up and stand next to things like a William Stone Engraving of the Declaration of Independence.

William Stone Engraving of the Declaration of Independence

As I wandered through the American History section of TJIC, I kept wondering how they did it. It struck me what a feat it was that this many incredibly valuable objects were all there, for the general public to see, for just one evening, for free. Even if you have billions of dollars (which Irsay does), there are still the multitude of mundane logistics and curatorial considerations that, while obviously not insurmountable, must be daunting. What are the logistics? How does everything stay safe? How many people does it take? I only had twenty to thirty exhibits at ten or so pop-up events before hitting a wall of what I dubbed “pop-up fatigue.”

I wondered, are a billionaire and his team immune to that ailment?

Eventually these musings where interrupted by the next section of TJIC.

There were just nine objects in the section Pop Culture, but it was one of my favorites because it included Steve Jobs’ Handwritten Letter to Childhood Friend and a Signed and Inscribed Apple II Manual.

Yes, there was a daydream about how neat it would be to have something like that in my New Media Museum’s relatively mundane Apple Collection.

Ah well, at least I have pictures of these things in the museum now. :)

Another fun, whimsical thing in the Popular Culture category was the Golden Ticket that was used in the filming of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

Screen-Used “Golden Ticket” from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Speaking of tickets, it was around the time that I snapped the above picture that I realized from the sounds of things that it was time to try to get seats for the concert by The Jim Irsay Band that was included with my free ticket to see TJIC.

The members of this all-star band include:
Kenny Aronoff, drums (Paul McCartney, John Mellencamp, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan)
Billy Branch, harmonica (Willie Dixon, Johnny Winter, Keb’ Mo, Taj Mahal)
Tom Bukovac, guitar (played on more than 700 albums with major artists)
Mike Mills, bass & vocals (founding member of R.E.M.)
Danny Nucci, guitar & saxophone (actor, Titanic, The Rock)
Michael Ramos, keyboards (Mellencamp, Patti Griffin, Paul Simon)
Carmella Ramsey, violin, mandolin & vocals (Reba McEntire, John Hiatt, Olivia Newton-John)
Kenny Wayne Shepherd, guitar & vocals (five-time Grammy® nominee)
Mike Wanchic, guitar (Mellencamp).

In addition, in the weeks leading up to the concert, three guests were announced:
Vince Gill, 22 time Grammy winner (May 18)
Kevin Cronin, REO Speedwagon (May 31)
Peter Wolf, The J. Geils Band (June 29)

As you can see from this picture, it turned out that I got a fantastic front row seat.

View of the Jim Irsay Band Concert Saturday, July 15, 2023

The concert was awesome! It was hard to wrap my head around seeing so many headliners at once. It was even more amazing to see each of them step forward to do their famous songs, then step back to continue to jam with the rest of the band.

Of course, after an insanely great concert, one must get a T-Shirt.

On the way out, basking in the glow of the evening, I found myself musing about what’s next for TJIC. Will it move on to other cities? Will it become a permanent museum in Indy or somewhere else? If it does, will there be concerts? Will there be a virtual version? That could never rival the in-person experience, but it could be possible to share some part of the magical evening with those who haven’t seen it, or want to relive it :)

Time will tell, and I’ll be watching …

Thank You Jim Irsay, Collection Team & Band!