I rarely write pieces that are part of the “news cycle” or are timely to current events because, I don’t get paid to do this and so there’s no incentive for me to carve out time in my schedule to react to something in the media. But BITCH, if you think I wasn’t going to make an exception for Lizzo and the crystal flute, you don’t know Museum Drip. Take a look at my About page! I’m guessing you’ve seen the videos (and if you’re like me, watched them a dozen times) but for reference, here’s Lizzo on stage playing the crystal flute from 1813:
The connection to museums here is straightforward; this event makes us think about why we preserve objects, who our collections are for, how we can balance commitment to public access with keeping fragile material culture and artworks safe for future generations to enjoy. It reminds us to question who has access, has been traditionally represented & included in our collective American history, and who’s been gatekept or erased. It’s ignorant and short-sighted to propose that this event isn’t historically significant for the fields of museums, libraries, archives, history, and for American culture, pop or otherwise. In the museum world, especially in art museum interpretation, we talk a lot about how the experience people bring to an object and the dialogue created around it adds something to that object. Our engagement adds something new to the legacy of an object – it’s a two way street, a give and take, not an object simply being a one-sided participant. Therefore, Lizzo playing the flute, and all of the ensuing conversation about it, has added to the history of that specific object, of music history, of pop culture history – she didn’t engage with history, but as she triumphantly yells, she made history. So yeah, this event occurred about 4 days ago at the time of composing this blog and the news cycle is short, but BITCH, this is monumental!
If you didn’t have the time or bandwidth or interest to keep up with the news on the crystal flute and how the moment came about, here are a few sources:
Washington Post: “How Lizzo Came to Play a President’s Crystal Flute on a DC Stage”
NPR: Lizzo Played James Madison’s Crystal Flute Onstage in DC, Proving History Rocks
Library of Congress Blog: It’s About (Danged) Time: Lizzo at the Library! (this is the best one bc of the line: “So, Monday. Our two stars meet cute.”) And because of this photo:
This wasn’t a “controversial” move by the Library of Congress. As they note in the blog linked above and shared via tweet, having professional musicians play instruments in the collections is actually part of their conservation practice.
This would be a freaking cool, historic moment for many popular figures to have experienced, but Lizzo is arguably the most perfect person to be at the center of this extraordinary situation. Her huge personality makes it fun to watch. Her musical talent and band-nerd persona mean that she is truly geeking out about the flute collections and is incredibly qualified to play them. Her contagious joy and message of self-love paired with transparency about the work ethic it takes to be Lizzo make it that much more meaningful to watch her be presented with and conquer an incredible opportunity of this magnitude. Plus, Lizzo is deeply interested in, as she sings in the 2021 single “Rumors,” “doing it for the culture.” In her 2021 Ted Talk on twerking, she says, “I want you to know where twerking came from. I think everyone should know where everything came from.” She notes that she “wants to add to the classical etymology of the dance.” She comes to this crystal flute moment moment with a deep understanding of the significance of unearthing historical perspectives, and making history accessible.
Lizzo isn’t just a rapper and singer or just a flautist or just a gal who twerks or just a body-positive icon or just…etc., etc., etc. She’s all that and more. She’s an activist for radical self and community care. When we talk about imagining an otherwise, we’re talking about people like Lizzo. Her rising tide lifts all boats.
You may not be a fanatic Lizzo girlie like me, so let me tell you a little bit about how she is an activist for radical joy and community care. Her reality TV show, Watch Out for the Big Grrrls, debuted on Amazon Prime in Spring 2022 and demonstrated how reality TV could still be fun to watch whilst not actively exploiting its cast members. Though the show followed the formula of a creative competition a la Project Runway, RuPaul’s Drag Race or The Great British Baking Show, Lizzo had a spot available for any and all of the dancers who can show that they have the stamina, skills and attitude to be on her backup crew. I remember being amazed at some of the things the women were given in the house for their well-being, and emotional at how she wanted to make sure they truly felt cared for throughout the process. I thought of the expense of some of the elements and how meaningful it is for her to share the experience of luxury for gals from regular walks of life! It might seem frivolous, but when we talk about eating the rich, we’re talking about the division between the haves and have nots, Marie Antoinette shit, a line and a binary that shan’t be crossed. Lizzo rejects that nonsense and treats her contestants like royalty.
Lizzo’s given opportunities even to many of the women who don’t ultimately land a spot in her tour. She’s brought some of the girls to her SNL performance and her Peloton appearance. Her brand radiates abundance, the opposite of which, a scarcity mindset, is what plagues artistic and creative fields into gatekeeping and toxic environments.
Plus, Lizzo is talented as hell.
Ok. I can easily write 2,000 words on why Lizzo is phenomenal and radical, but hopefully this gives a bit of context for why, if you don’t know a lot about her, she is the perfect public figure to partner with the Library of Congress.
One of the conversations that has emerged from this week’s events are how they contrast with Kim Kardashian wearing Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday Mr. President” dress, a pop culture moment that I personally was ultimately ambivalent about, but definitely riled up folks in the conservation and collections fields. There are other folks more qualified than me to talk about the vast differences between the fragility of fabric and conserving musical instruments that are meant to be played, even if they are hundreds of years old. For me, the major difference is the way that one of these stunts did harm and one did good, which you can say is subjective, but consider the following: per all that I just shared about Lizzo empowering women and really everyone who needs her message, so much of the story of Kim K wearing the Marilyn dress centered on her dropping 16 pounds in a matter of weeks from her already small frame. Perhaps if there had been a different narrative around the Marilyn dress, it may have had more similarities with the crystal flute moment, but ultimately the only takeaway I have from the Met gala moment is a perpetuation of our societal obsession with the objectification and size of women’s bodies, and for me, that is not a good reason to trot out a fragile, historical object. Kim K has an obsession with Marilyn. Basic white girl jokes aside, it’s not not disturbing for a celebrity known for trying to perfect her appearance to be obsessed with one who experienced trauma after trauma in the public eye. Appropriating Marilyn’s life is nothing new but that doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable when you unpack it.
Let’s also not lose the fact that the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, invited Lizzo to the LOC to view and play flutes in their collection. Someone on Twitter asked why Lizzo gets to play the flutes and questioned that while it is cool, is it not just a “pay to play” situation that does equal gatekeeping harm to collections that are meant to be public? One of my Museum Drip Instagram followers had a perfect response which we could basically sum up by saying, conservators know what they are doing. I love the sentence “preservation is a science that can’t be turned back.” But by all means, if this has inspired you to ask an archive if you can play their video games, or their flutes, or touch their costumes or fashion collections, do it! I’ve handled objects in collections and it is reverant and thrilling. It takes paperwork, and time, and you’ll probably be supervised by someone and not know what to talk to them about, but if you’re lucky, they’ll ask you to join them for Indian taco lunch day. (This happened to at the NMAI collections and its a top 10 museum professional experience for sure. And I was an undergrad!)
In all my words about why Lizzo is perfect person for this incredible event, I haven’t even touched on the fact that a Black woman playing an opulent gift to the founding father who initiated the three-fifths compromise is staggering if we really stop to think about it. Get in losers, we’re dismantling generational curses. I fortunately don’t have trolls in any of my social media feeds, but to be informed, I did look at a round up of tweets from people who didn’t enjoy this historical moment. In the spirit of the excellent conversation I attended earlier this week by Clint Smith for the Association of Art Museum Interpretation, I remind myself that people who feel threatened by Lizzo daring to participate in American history have been passed down stories that to question would mean to question who they are, who their families are, and they are not simply, in Smith’s words, “caricatures of evil.” Regardless, their stances against Lizzo playing a historic flute are nonsensical. They’d be comical if they weren’t so dangerous. It’s just a matter of people wishing American art was paintings of horse and ships.
Not that many people are saying it was, especially those who know what they’re talking about on this topic, but again, this wasn’t a “controversial” event. It was a joyful and in fact genius partnership between a historical organization and a top musician of our time. It demonstrated how museum/library/archive professionals can work together with the public to ensure that collections continue to be accessible and meaningful! I tell students all the time that the reason we often feel disconnected from artwork and material culture from the colonial era and other bygone periods of time is because they didn’t care about us and so it can be hard to care about them. Periods of history that were structurally racist, patriarchal and classist are hard to relate to. But when today’s artists provide an update, everything changes. Titus Kaphar, Lin Manuel Miranda, Lizzo – they’re making it easier on us.
I’ve been saying for years that we deserve Lizzo. We deserve an icon who doesn’t pretend to be perfect and reminds us that she’s “obsessed” with us eating our veggies and watering our plants and that in case nobody told you today, you’re special. Reckoning with our nation’s history is hard, important work. What more could we want than to hear Lizzo thank collections managers for preserving OUR history and making “history freaking cool”???