Spotlight: Houdini Museum

For Lawrentians interested in the off-campus attractions available in Appleton, the History Museum at the Castle is a hidden gem. The museum is currently featuring exhibitions on Appleton residents Harry Houdini and Joseph McCarthy as well as a nationally travelling exhibit titled “Guitar: The Instrument That Rocked the World.” 

The guitar exhibit, in town through Jan. 2020, is a compelling attraction regardless of your interests. The series explores the history, science and cultural impact of the guitar and displays more than 70 instruments and artifacts, as well as photographs, hands-on STEM interactives and video displays.

Culture and even politics can be the driving influences behind music and design. The electric guitar’s popularity was due to not only a new realm of sonic possibilities, but also aesthetic changes. As electric guitars emerged and grew in esteem, luthiers experimented with extreme designs. Important groundbreaking luthiers in the stylistic arena featured in the exhibit include Bernardo Chavez Rico, aka B.C. Rich, creator of the 1978 10-string guitar Rich Bich used by Joe Perry, Rick Derringer and Lita Ford; and AC/DC and Clash roadie Andrew Bond, creator of the Electraglide, an unusual and electronically complex guitar inspired by Asian and Middle Eastern instruments and made from a single piece of carbon fiber plastic. Much more politically driven was the design of the USSR Rostov Stella: as electric guitars boomed in popularity at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, the USSR was unwilling to replicate Western designs or import U.S. guitars. The Soviet models were characterized by industrial strength construction, bulky metal components and black finish, though most models were discontinued with the dissolution of the USSR and guitars from the United States and Japan entered the region.

Of the instruments featured, many show the evolution of the electric guitar in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s as well as contemporary experiments such as 3D printed and pine electric guitars of the 2010s, but the exhibit also displays stringed instruments from periods as early as 1400 A.D. One of the earliest instruments resembling the modern guitar is the Iberian vihuela, which could be played by plucking, strumming or bowing. Other early string instruments include the lute and mandolin as well as lesser-known instruments such as the South American charango, whose soundbox is constructed from an armadillo shell. Animal shells and bones had been used in instruments for thousands of years, but the unique benefit of the armadillo shell is that its ridged flexibility allows the soundbox to be reshaped to alter the sound.

The guitar exhibit explores not only historical and musical perspectives on guitars and their craft, but also scientific explanations. The exhibition features a display on the physics of rock guitar by a Ph.D. in rock acoustics, in addition to the world’s largest playable electric guitar, a 43.5 foot long experiment engineered by the Academy of Science and Technology in Houston, Texas, as a replica of the Gibson Flying V to explore electromagnetism and engineering. The superlative was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2001, and the guitar has toured the country ever since.

Upcoming events at the museum include “Stories from the Wreckage” on Monday, Nov. 11, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. by Lawrence alumnus Dr. John Odin Jensen ‘87. Drawing upon the archeological and historic research from his new book, Jensen will tell the history of Wisconsin’s historic shipwrecks and explain the Wisconsin Historical Society’s role in preserving North America’s underwater history. More information is available on the museum’s website.