The American Banjo Museum
by Susan Marquez
The American Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma is dedicated to the instrument’s history that epitomizes American music: the banjo. The 21,000 square foot museum documents the rise of the banjo from its arrival in North America via the Atlantic slave trade to modern times.
Brady Hunt and Jack Canine founded the Museum as a non-profit organization in 1998. First located in Guthrie, Oklahoma, the Museum moved to Oklahoma City in 2009. Visitors can now experience a world-class museum dedicated to celebrating the music and heritage of the banjo. Over 400 instruments are on display, many dating back hundreds of years, making it the most extensive collection of banjos on display in the world.
“It was once called The National Four String Banjo Hall of Fame Museum,” says Rachel Reichert, who is the Museum’s director of events.
Rachel explains that the Museum was founded primarily by and for enthusiasts of the four-string banjo. Much as the banjo has evolved over the years, the Museum has grown as well. With the banjo taking on many forms and styles, the present name for the Museum is more appropriate.
“Now we call it the American Banjo Museum. It is amazing to see the many banjos on display in the Museum and to learn that although they are similar, they can also be quite different.”
The Museum’s instrument collection represents every era of the banjo evolution, from primitive homemade instruments to modern banjos. Also preserved are Banjo-related publications, periodicals, photographs, and personal memorabilia for future banjo enthusiasts. The collection contains many rare and one-of-a-kind items and a collection of songbooks and sheet music, with some publications dating back to the 1800s.
In addition to banjos, thousands of audio and video recordings of banjo performances are on display, ranging from the earliest days of sound recordings to the present day, with all playing styles represented.
“While bluegrass is certainly a very important part of the collection, we have all styles of banjo playing represented, including Dixieland jazz,” says Rachel. “We hold a big Mardi Gras event each year to celebrate that.”
Other events are held at the Museum throughout the year, including a children’s event at Christmas. “We also have plans for a music petting zoo in the near future,” Rachel says. “We also hold live shows here from time to time in our performance space, which is a remake of Your Father’s Mustache Pizza Parlor.” The space features a stage and seats up to eighty people.
The American Banjo Museum’s annual Hall of Fame dinner is one of the ancillary events associated with the Banjo Fest held each October.
This year’s Hall of Fame dinner will feature five inductees, including Jens Kruger for five-string performance, Brad Roth for four-string performance, Paul Buskirk for historical, Greg Rich for design and manufacture and Scott Whitfield for instruction and education. Rich is being honored for his work creating high-quality replicas of 1920’s era Gibson Mastertone banjos. Whitfield wrote two banjo method books and developed the curriculum for the International Banjo College.
Past Hall of Famers includes Bela Fleck, Jim Henson, John McEuen, Roy Clark, JD Crowe, Pete Seeger, Steve Martin, Earl Scruggs, and the Kingston Trio, among many others. Rachel says the Hall of Fame dinner is always a popular event. “Last year, we had to do a virtual Hall of Fame due to [COVID-19], so we are looking forward to this year’s event,” says Rachel.
COVID-19 has been a challenge for the Museum. “We closed for three months in 2020,” Rachel says, “but we managed to get by thanks to a few grants we received.”
The Museum offers a membership, and members have access to various online offerings, from the “Virtual at Noon” concert series to workshops, interviews, and banjo lessons. Another perk for members is access to the Museum’s archives, available to members by appointment.
The Museum features special exhibits from time to time. The Women of the Banjo exhibit that chronicles women’s contributions to the banjo will be on display through May 2022. The exhibit’s featured contemporary performers include Alison Brown and Rhiannon Giddens, along with pop icons Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift.