I pulled open the door to the American Banjo Museum, unsure of what lay behind the cheerful red exterior. Obscure museums like this one have the potential to be bland and boring, with placards and pictures, but they’ve also been known to surprise me with bountiful collections, colorful displays, easy-to-understand background information and the ability to interest me in something I know nothing about.
Inside, a woman greeted me and pointed out the general layout of the exhibit: historical background first, the most valuable collection in the back, a reproduction of Shakey’s Pizza upstairs and hundreds of other banjos scattered throughout the museum.
I wandered into America’s Instrument, the multimedia exhibit that offered 370 years of banjo history in just a few minutes. Though familiar with bluegrass and folk music, I didn’t realize that the instrument played such a significant role in American slavery. I skipped through the end of the presentation, eager to move on to the instruments themselves.
Banjos are woven deeper into our societal fabric than I originally realized. Lots of people have been instrumental (pardon the pun) in putting banjos on the map from Elvis Presley to Marilyn Monroe, though my most favorite banjo icon is Kermit the Frog (Rainbow Connection, anyone?). I think most people are similar to me in thinking that banjos are just another type of guitar, but what I didn’t realize is that, not only are these instruments completely different from guitars but they are also works of art. Sure, the music created by the banjo is pluck-worthy enough, but the intricately carved tops, painted backs, inlaid ivory and jewels transform the instruments into art as well. This artistic zeal is worth the trip to the American Banjo Museum alone.
On the second floor of the museum is an exact reproduction of a Shakey’s Pizza, which opened in the 1960s with 500 franchises across America. Pizza was a given, but to open a Shakey’s, owners also had to employ a live banjo player who entertained pie-eating audiences. Live performances are scheduled at Shakey’s in the American Banjo Museum but nothing was going on when I sat down so I let my eyes wander across the decor. What a bummer that we’ve let a place like Shakey’s die. Was it the lack of banjo players that killed the chain, or simply bad pizza? I’ll never know.
What I do know is that, though I wasn’t sure what to expect from a small, selective museum focused on a particular instrument, I was pleasantly surprised by my visit. I didn’t stop to read every placard, and I wasn’t necessarily interested in learning about all the intricate details that led to the banjo’s place in modern history, but I did learn to appreciate an instrument that was essentially a mystery to me. If this obscure little museum with its cheerful exterior meant to do that, then it achieved its goal.
Location: 9 East Sheridan in Oklahoma City | Entrance fee: $6.00 for adults with discounts for others | Company website
My visit to the American Banjo Museum was courtesy of the Oklahoma City Convention & Visitors Bureau but all opinions are my own.