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The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum announces 'Women Who Rock' exhibit

February 3, 2011 |  7:30 am

Madonna bustier 207 Starting May 13, women armed with pipes and axes (the vocal and guitar kinds, of course) will take over the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. Get ready for willful sopranos, juke-joint mamas, girl-group cuties, gritty punkers and lots of voices from all over the feminine spectrum.

"Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power" has been officially in the works since last summer, but on an unofficial level, it’s been contemplated for years by the museum staff. The exhibition will highlight more than 50 artists -- among them Chrissie Hynde, Madonna, Bikini Kill, Taylor Swift, Ruth Brown, Tina Turner and Yoko Ono -- and will fill two floors of the institution. Ending in February 2012, the exhibit will likely travel to other museums, though no firm plans are yet in place.

For Jim Henke, the vice president of exhibitions who led the curatorial team on "Women Who Rock," the timing seemed especially ripe for such an enterprise. To spotlight two stories that have taken over the music narrative as of late, Lady Gaga has become the locus of the pop world and Rihanna has reemerged strong from her public ordeal with domestic violence.

“Women have played an important role in the last year,” Henke said. “And they’re getting the respect they deserve.” Henke is quick to point out, for the record, that the influence of women in popular culture is nothing new. “Going back to some of the great blues and gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson to rockabilly pioneers like Wanda Jackson, women have played a crucial role in music.”

While creating the exhibit with a small team of curators and consultants (including, on an unpaid basis, Times pop critic Ann Powers), Henke was once again confronted with the difficulties women faced getting their voices heard. “Women were often put in the background, they weren’t given the same kind of airplay as their male counterparts. They had to struggle with the same issues in the music world that they were struggling with in the general culture.”

It’s those kinds of issues -- along with previous, well-meaning but problematic attempts in the media to celebrate women in music -- that make an exhibit such as "Women Who Rock" tricky to put together. The Rock and Roll Museum tried to avoid any patronizing categorizations or easy definitions of female musicianship.

Lauren Onkey, vice president of education and public programs, points out that “there is no one linear argument to be made about what or who women were or are -- it changes all the time. It’s a big story to grapple with and it’s not just one story… I think if you emphasize their artistry, whatever form that took, and you put it in dialogue with the culture, within music and outside of it, you do OK.”

"Women Who Rock" is organized into six eras, starting with the '20s and working up to the present, with the final era touching on the riot grrrl movement, female rappers and Lilith Fair. Throughout the year, the museum will feature additional educational programs, including a class offered to high school and junior high-level students, to supplement the ideas presented in "Women Who Rock."

And, as there should be, there will be actual rock-making as well by real women. To kick off the exhibit’s opening, the museum’s annual It’s Only Rock and Roll spring benefit concert will feature Wanda Jackson, Cyndi Lauper and other musicians to be announced in the coming weeks. Keep your fingers crossed for your lady rocker of choice.

-- Margaret Wappler

Photo: One of the artifacts in the exhibit, Madonna's bustier from her Blond Ambition tour in 1990. Credit: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum