Every year, the National Marian Anderson Historical Society and Museum tells a new story of the celebrated South Philadelphia singer whose voice defied notions of race, gender and vocal ranges.
Launching annually on her birthday, Feb. 27, and running through the following January, the Graduate Hospital historical landmark, which Anderson called home for most of her life, hosts a different 11-month exhibit each year.
Kicking off last week, 2019’s showcase, “Marian: A Soul in Song,” takes guests on a “living history tour,” divulging into the world-renowned performing artist’s life and legacy through, perhaps, Anderson’s most revealing aspect – her voice.
“I don’t know of another historical figure that has, in many different ways, shaped the scope of the conversation the way Marian Anderson has….We tend to focus on those key points of Marian’s life that can tell an infinite story and stretch the conversation,” said Jillian Patricia Pirtle, National Marian Anderson Museum CEO and National Marian Anderson Scholar and performing artist. “Certainly, her recordings do that.”
The new exhibit, which encompasses three floors of memorabilia, features never-before-seen gowns and costumes once worn by Anderson during her decades-long career that carried throughout the 20th century amidst a plethora of genres.
Most of the 15 articles of clothing, which start even with her baby clothes, are paired with a performance, as live recordings are accompanied by the respective dresses she wore during the tapings, resurrecting the historical concerts right in her South Philly home as guests will listen to the songs being played on a victrola.
While prior exhibitions have presented Anderson’s singing, Pirtle says this showcase features the most number of vocals, as 103 live recordings were resurfaced for the display. The dozens of songs were recorded by the Camden-based RCA (Recording Artist Company), previously known as Victor Talking Machine Company before 1929, as Anderson was the first African-American to sign with the major label, according to the museum.
“So, to tell that story, bring it together in the museum, pair it with the proper gowns and costumes that go along with the recordings, and then the stories, the contracts that you see on display that she had with RVC, the different photos and memorabilia, it kind of ties in and tells this whole story, which is really our goal for every exhibit,” Pirtle said. “We want a different story to be told.”
Like all of the museum’s annual displays, the exhibitions are not only informative but immersive, as guests will wander the halls and stairways Anderson once walked. Much of the memorabilia is free from glass protection, making the experience more authentic.
Actually immersing into Anderson’s sphere, the sites of the dresses are stitched together by contracts gently lying on the piano or baby shoes on the wall.
Hosting the exhibits, especially this one, in Anderson’s home, which she bought for $4,000 in cash in the mid-1920s, according to Pirtle, elevates the singer’s accounts.
“It humanizes (Marian’s story) on a level that can not be felt otherwise,” Pirtle said. “When people walk into the museum, they say they feel Marian’s spirit. They feel her essence being here.”
Stepping into the row home nestled on South Martin Street, which was acquired by museum founder Blanche Burton Lyles in 1995, audiences are immediately taken on a journey through Anderson’s life. The first room, peppered with her christening dresses and childhood jacket, sheds light on her youth, which gradually spills into the adjacent room that unveils Anderson’s journey from music education to professional pressings.
On the second floor, guests will see more of Anderson’s familial story and her life as a young woman after returning from Europe, where she received education and performance experiences. Finally, the basement level includes a dedication to Anderson’s iconic performance at the Lincoln Memorial.
While the exhibit takes guests on an adventure of Anderson’s life, it concurrently reveals major points in American history, including the Great Depression, World War II and the civil rights movement, as her music noticeably shifts during such periods.
“Marian always believed in wanting to excel in her dream with her voice and then to use her voice to make a difference, and though she faced terrible discrimination being told – no, she couldn’t succeed, because of the color of her skin, and because she was a female, and then overcoming those obstacles to become everything that she was,” Pirtle said. “…And everything she did with her voice to change the scope and the vision, the direction of the country as it were going forward.”
In appreciating Anderson’s legacy, Pirtle also hopes the exhibit exposes audiences to the museum and historical society’s philanthropy, especially its efforts in fostering the future generation of vocalists.
According to its website, the National Marian Anderson Museum Scholar Arts Program supports young classical, opera, theatrical , musical and visual artists from countries across the globe. Along with a season of concerts that help benefit the museum, the selected scholars perform at events sponsored by the society.
“The essence of the voice is such a crystal clear thought,” Pirtle said. “It’s such a wonderful uniqueness that we all have that can’t be taken any other way or taken for granted, because it’s so unique…when you hear Marian’s voice, that’s her story. That’s her legacy, and certainly, we want to make sure that the legacy goes on for generations to come.”
Info: The exhibit runs through Jan. 1, 2020 at 762 S. Martin St..
General admission is a $10 donation to support the museum and scholar arts program.
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